If people can tell you what to do with your own property, do you really own it? Or do you just get to use your property as long as you do things with it that the majority like? A financially struggling South Carolina woman found out that her neighbors’ complaints about her yard can send her to jail.
Linda Ruggles is a photographer who lives in a suburb of Charleston, S.C., and her photography business has fallen on hard times recently. She lost her photo studio to foreclosure and she almost lost her home to foreclosure last year. She now works part-time as a cashier at a grocery store, and she sold her blood, collected scrap metal and volunteered for medical experiments to come up with the money to barely keep her home.
The roof of her house leaks, so she was able to buy some roofing tiles, but she hasn’t yet been able to come up with the money to pay roofers to install them, so they’ve been sitting on her roof waiting to be put on for three years. Her yard has some junk, including some columns that need to be installed on her porch.
Her neighbors aren’t happy. After they complained to the local municipal government, she was issued a fine for $480 — which she can’t afford to pay. “I told everyone, ‘If I had $480 to pay the fine, I’d fix the roof,'” she told the Charleston Post and Courier.
The city says it’s an open-and-shut case. She was issued a fine. A judge said she was guilty. She didn’t pay the fine or show up in court. So they threw her into jail for six days.
So who’s right? And who’s to blame? I’d say everyone is right and the system is to blame.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the idea of zoning was introduced in the United States. Before that time, you could do whatever you wanted with your property, unless there were deed covenants that restricted how you used the property. A deed covenant is simply a private agreement that comes with a piece of property that says you agree to certain rules about the property before you buy it. If you don’t like the restrictions, you don’t buy the property.
But as a part of the progressive movement, cities decided that they had the power to tell owners what they could do with their property and what rules they had to abide by. (I wrote Thursday about the moral error at the root of the progressives’ ideas.) The rules were determined by the representatives of the majority, of course, so individual property owners had no say in what they were forced to do or not do. These rules have gotten more and more restrictive over the years.
The city where Ruggles lives — like most cities today — has certain rules about property. The city can change the rules whenever it wishes. The only thing that matters is what the representatives of the majority want. If the majority rule that everyone must paint his house purple, that’s what you have to do. If the majority demand that everyone keep lawns kept a certain way and trimmed to certain heights, that’s what you have to do. Your property isn’t really your own.
If I were Ruggles’ neighbors, I wouldn’t be thrilled with what her property looks like, either, but they have no contract with her, so they should have no say in the matter. The idea that the majority should be able to unilaterally dictate to her what she can do with her property is repugnant, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled — in a 1926 decision during the progressive era — that a property owner has no rights against the majority on the matter.
I understand Ruggles’ problem and her struggles. She seems like someone who is up to her neck in problems and has struggled mightily to escape trouble. She’s stayed just barely ahead of financial disaster for the past few years. And now the city punishes her because she’s unable to keep her home as the majority of her neighbors want.
I also understand how the neighbors feel. Because of expectations of zoning, deed covenants aren’t used that much anymore to create the kinds of mutual obligations they once created. These private agreements have been usurped by governments — claiming the right to decide for everyone.
If everyone in a neighborhood wants restrictions about how property has to be kept, I don’t have any problem with that, because it’s voluntary. But I have a serious problem with politicians and bureaucrats operating in the name of the majority to make up rules for everyone else. It’s wrong.
The idea that Ruggles should spend a week in jail because she can’t afford to fix her property and creates more of a mess than the neighbors like is an evil idea. It’s another manifestation of the idea that individuals don’t matter. Only the will of the majority matters.
In a country that was supposed to be founded on principles of individual liberty, it’s a tragedy. It shows how little “the land of the free” really cares about property rights or the rights of individuals when they dare depart from what the majority decide.