Ari Armstrong, Denver, Exclusives, Housing, Uncategorized

Armstrong: The property rights case for residential freedom

Something strange happened with the story of Denver approving group living. The reform was pitched as a “progressive” measure, as Councilor Amanda Sandoval said. The overtly anti-capitalist councilor Candi CdeBaca voted for the measure. I’m left with the impression that many conservatives opposed it. But, in my book, the reform is a straight-up promotion of capitalism and economic liberty. Indeed, Denver government should implement more such free-market reforms regarding residential building, use, and rentals.

Here is the story, as Westword’s Conor McCormick-Cavanagh explains it: Early on February 9, following a meeting that started the previous day, the council passed an “ordinance [that] increases the number of unrelated adults who can live together in the same home from two to five, and also makes it easier for service providers to set up residential-care facilities, such as halfway houses, sober-living homes and homeless shelters, throughout Denver.” (Throughout I draw on details from this story.)

In other words, Denver will now recognize people’s rights to use their residential property as they see fit (to a greater degree), whereas before Denver substantially violated people’s rights to do so.

A foundational belief of libertarian-conservatism is that property rights are essential and that government should protect people’s right to property. Here is how Ayn Rand put the point: “The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible.” Our state constitution’s Bill of Rights lists “possessing and protecting property” as among our “natural, essential and inalienable rights.”

Government may legitimately step in to protect people’s rights. For example, if someone put a pig farm or processing plant right next to your house, that would violate your rights, because the stench and noise would dramatically interfere with your use of your property. And government may limit property use that demonstrably creates hazards for others.

But a property owner renting out residential space to four other people does not inherently violate anyone’s rights, so government should allow it.

Some caveats: The owner of a rental property has a moral right to set terms of use (again while respecting others’ rights). So an owner should be able to rent a unit to a single person, a single family, or to multiple people. And developers of a new residential complex have the right to set up a homeowner’s association that governs occupancy (among other things). As far as I know, the new ordinance does not affect such things; but, if it does, I’d be critical of those aspects of it.

Some people play fast-and-loose with the notion of a rights violation to try to justify occupancy restrictions.

To be sure, some specific concerns are totally legitimate. Here is how one critic of the measure described a problem: “There were four people on the lease [nearby the critic], who had ten people living there and fifteen cars, and they turned their garage into a strip club that opened up after the bars closed. I heard that every single night, and no one would help me. No one.”

Obviously that sort of residential property use interferes with others’ property rights. But the proper solution is for government to address specific problems, not to ban multiple occupancy for everyone. Compare: Some people abuse the right to freedom of speech to spread slanderous lies, but that hardly justifies violating everyone’s freedom of speech. Instead, government should facilitate tort cases than handle specific problems of libel and slander. Notice that the problem in this case occurred prior to the implementation of the new measure, so obviously the problem was with enforcement of nuisance laws then on the books.

Another concern is that some group occupancy situations would lead to crime. Again, this justifies specific government enforcement actions against criminals, not blanket bans. The failure of Denver government to protect people’s rights in certain ways hardly justifies Denver government violating people’s rights in other ways.

An essential principle of American justice is that we do not punish the innocent for the crimes of the guilty. Would everyone in a group living arrangement commit crimes? Obviously not. Only a small minority would. Government should punish the guilty, not persecute the innocent.

Another concern is street parking. But government easily could say that each property gets only so many street parking spaces. For example, in my Westminster neighborhood, street parking is limited to residents who display special passes. Lots of people in Denver don’t even have cars. Government’s failure to work out sensible rules for street parking hardly justifies blanket bans on group living.

Capitalists should applaud Denver’s greater recognition of property rights and endorse further reforms.

Notably, the basic arguments I made above also apply to short-term rentals. Yet, rather than limit its activities to addressing specific problems with some such properties, Denver has relentlessly persecuted and harassed owners of short-term rental properties.

Greater recognition of property rights also would facilitate novel approaches to Denver’s problems with homelessness. Interestingly, McCormick-Cavanagh also spent the night at one of Denver’s “safe-camping sites.” (Media observers might notice the very different reactions that this stunt drew compared with that of Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, who spent a week living on the streets.) Imagine if a private property owner set up such a “safe-camping” facility and charged people, say, twenty bucks a night to stay in a tent. Denver would immediately shut this down as the city’s politicians decried the “exploitative” capitalists. I think property owners should be radically freer to provide inexpensive temporary and permanent housing options.

I for one celebrate Denver’s modest step toward capitalism. Let’s hope Denver legalizes, in Robert Nozick’s terms, ever more “capitalist acts among consenting adults.”

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.  He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.

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