Sidestep blight rules, let homeless build in ‘free trade zone’

Chattanooga mayor Andy Berke talks with a resident of Avondale as part of a cleanup day called DeCode Day. (Photo YouTube)

Top photo, Chattanooga mayor Andy Berke talks with a resident of Avondale as part of a cleanup day called DeCode Day. Bottom photo, a trackhoe demolishes a wretched abandoned house. (Photo YouTube, “DeCode Day Chattanooga: Avondale Neighborhood.”)

A trackhoe demolishes a blighted house in Avondale, a part of Chattanooga, Tenn. (Photo YouTube, DeCode Day Chattanooga: Avondale Neighborhood)

Among the many hindrances to a housing free-trade zone in Chattanooga is the high-minded and valuable system of government that attacks blight.

Blight is decay, decrepitude, ugliness. It refers to areas with decayed and abandoned structures, broken windows, smashed porches, sagging rooflines and overgrown shrubbery and grass, foul odors and the scent of mold, soggy wood, rotted carpeting.

By David Tulis / Noogaradio 1240 AM 101.1 FM

According to the cities 2016 report, blight is a state of decay or destruction of a building so bad it “impairs and/or prevents the growth and prosperity of itself and its surroundings.”

Blight can refer to a house that has one or two code violations to one so dilapidated it must be condemned. “Research shows that blighted and abandoned properties are a detriment to neighborhoods and create a number of challenges, from lower property values and quality of life to an increase in the risk of fire and higher crime rates.”

Code enforcement’s goal is to reduce “vehicle, litter, overgrowth and nuisance conditions — nuisance being anything that disturbs the reasonable use of one’s property or endangers life and health.”

The city department responsible for protecting the “health, safety and welfare” of Chattanooga by enforcing housing standards brought 11,688 properties into compliance with the code and, report says, preserved those homes and return the property to productive use.

“Issues could include a rotting floor, collapsing roof, unstable walls, faulty electrical wiring, no running water, or lacking heat in severe winter weather or the reverse in the summer. Only 160 homes were condemned​ in 2016, a 32.7 percent decrease over 2015,” the report says.

Two districts with the most blight are said to have improved greatly thanks to city government’s focus “on education and awareness” among owners and neighbors. 

Now, for the homeless

The hurdle facing my spontaneous neighborhood proposal is that this sector set up by the homeless would by definition constitute blight.

The blight rules prevent the creation of the real bottom of the housing market. Right now the bottom of the housing market involves dwellings that have been foreclosed on and are in bad condition and may sell for F$10,000. These houses are fixer-uppers to be bought by young families, or suitable for people of the lowest means who accept squalor and shabbiness.

Beneath this apparent bottom of the “affordable housing” market is the real bottom of the housing market.

That is where homeless people are. But that market does not exist because the homeless are not free to build structures for themselves. Our law bans the bottom of the market under the threat of the inspector and the bulldozer. A squatter camp is as illegal as a condemned house.

Your shantytown is my housing free trade zone

My proposal is premised on the scriptural admonition prohibiting oppression of the poor. It also is based on voluntaryist and libertarian principles that allow for a spontaneous market to be created if not prohibited by law.

The plan is called “your shanty town is my house in free trade zone” because I envision an area in Chattanooga — or mabe two or three of them — in which homeless people can go and set down stakes in the River City.

In my plan, homeless people claim a piece of land in a designated area and take possession of it.

One major condition: They must stay on the property for 2½ years, establish residency by building a dwelling on it and occupying it.

This chart shows how city inspectors are controlling blight in many otherwise run-down and perilous neighborhoods.

This chart shows how city inspectors are controlling blight in many otherwise run-down and perilous neighborhoods.

The structures they build it entirely free of regulation. These are self-created structures, or tiny homes. They may be shabby. They use recycled construction site offal. Raised at no cost the taxpayer by the homeless person’s own means, the structures will look awful. Most homeless people are not builders and would do the best they could.

They would use discarded pieces of plywood, thrown out beams, tossed-away 2x4s, pieces of plastic, sheets of corrugated aluminum, old tires, sandbags, piles of dirt and other things that they could raise to keep out the cold. A well-built shack would even allow the owner to lock his door and secure his property while he is away begging, scrounging or getting work.

Blight control = homeless control

The problems facing my idea are many. A chief one is the blight control system. The choice of whether to keep a poor population homeless resides less with the homeless than with the official concept behind blight control ordinance and practice.

We can have a choice between every part of the city being pretty or tolerable to the eye — and having homeless people.

If every house and every neighborhood meets our minimum standards, we’ll have homeless people.

Or we can have homeless people building structures to suit themselves, in an area known for its ugliness and rancidness, but which suits dwellers just fine and allows them to be left alone to pursue their own plans — and maybe advance themselves.

The option is that we maintain our sense of decorum and be satisfied with our dicta regarding health, safety and welfare. Or we abandon — for the sake of wretched wanderers and drifters — our ideals about what the city should look like in every borough, and allow homeless people to do as they can, even though it may not look nice and even though it offends our sense of propriety.

A free trade zone in housing is truly live and let live. It allows us to ease away from our patronizing middle class morays to allow people beneath us to settle. It extends grace to those against whom no grace is extended under current rules in Chattanooga, and lets them become stakeholders, property holders and residents, able finally to have a fixed address so they can get mail.

Source: “Reducing Blight in Chattanooga; 2016 Yearend Report,”

Michelle Heron, “Structures deemed unsafe in Chattanooga are down,” Jan. 3, 2017,

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I discuss my proposal on Noogaradio

The City of Chattanooga’s Economic & Community Development Department launched a program called DeCode Day in October 2015 to enhance neighborhoods. An Oct. 16 event was the first in ECD’s initiative; it focused on two blocks in the Avondale neighborhood.

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