Friday, November 6, 2009

The "Right" to Hot Water

On Wednesday the Houston city council approved an ordinance requiring the Public Works Department to inspect apartment complexes every four years. Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, authored a state bill requiring the city to enact the legislation. Bohac called this "a basic human rights bill":
The basic right is to live in a structurally sound, safe environment where there is running water at the right temperature and they (the tenants) don't have to be fearful walking through their parking lot and it's lighted correctly and the balconies aren't falling down and the pools are protected.

Such claims are to be expected from Democrats, who routinely create "rights" out of thin air. That a Republican is now doing the same shows just how far to the left the Republicans have drifted.

The Founding Fathers correctly identified our fundamental rights as life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Such rights pertain to action, not the results of actions. Such rights sanction the individual's freedom to pursue his values and interests without interference from others.

But now we have intellectual Neanderthals like Bohac asserting that we also have a right to water that is at the "right" temperature and parking lots that are lighted "correctly". "Right" and "correctly" by whose standard? And why should that standard be imposed on every apartment owner in the city?

I certainly doubt that many (if any) Houstonians desire to live in an apartment with no hot water, dark and dangerous parking lots, and a rickety balcony. But short of fraud or negligence, apartment owners have a right to offer unkempt housing. And renters have a right to accept such housing or find an alternative more to their liking.

Apartment owners will be forced to pay a fee of $4 per unit for the inspections, which the city says will only pay for half of the cost. The remainder of the cost will come from permit fees issued by the Public Works Department. Or at least, that is what the city would like us to believe.

At the end of the day, it will be the tenants (and their fellow Houstonians) who are paying for these inspections. Rents will increase as owners seek to recover the costs of the inspections and the repairs that the city will require them to make. Mayor White, who had already been cracking down on apartment complexes, hailed the ordinance:
We've shut down, for the first time that anyone can remember, apartment buildings that had slum conditions that are not worthy of this city.

Undoubtedly, more complexes will be shuttered, resulting in fewer housing options for low-income renters. The higher demand for the smaller housing supply will also cause prices to increase. The net economic result of the ordinance will be devastating to low-income renters.

In their rush to "help" these tenants the city tramples on the legitimate rights of the property owners, as well as the rights of the tenants. White and his cronies on city council can go home to their cushy homes, sip martinis, and pat themselves on the back for "helping" the poor and downtrodden. And when the housing supply shrinks, the city will come to the "rescue" once again and provide assistance for those who cannot afford housing.

This ordinance--like all laws that violate property rights--will distort the market. It will have repercussions that the city did not, and cannot, anticipate. And then the city will use the resulting problems to justify more intervention.

The fact is, a market exists for low-income rental housing--if there wasn't, such housing would not be available. By its very nature, such housing will be low quality. Some government officials believe that nobody should have to live in such conditions. And they are correct--short of government edicts nobody has to live in such conditions.

Rather than protect the rights of all individuals--including the right to offer substandard housing, and the right to live in such apartments--government officials want to simply make it go away. But their commandments will not make the demand for such housing disappear--they will only make the situation worse.

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