Thursday, June 28, 2007

Legislature bans telling the truth.

One worry people have when they deal with estate agents or property brokers is whether or not they will get honest answers to questions. Little do people realize that the Nanny State has made it illegal to honestly answer some questions. The broker can be fined or jailed for telling the truth. They aren’t allowed to lie either. They simply have to refuse to answer.

Consider how rational people look for a residence. People want to know what the neighborhood is like in the suburbs. And it the city they want to know about the building. This makes sense.

A mother with 3 children wants to know if there are other children in the building. Consider the possible problems if she doesn’t know. She moves into a building and discovers that the vast majority of the tenants are elderly. There is no one for her children to play with. Worse yet running and screaming children disturb the other tenants. Of course the opposite can happen. An older woman, perhaps recently widowed, is looking for someplace quiet and peaceful. She could end up in a building with lots of children or young singles who like to party. Either way her discomfort is increased.

The potential for conflict is almost endless. And most people prefer to minimize conflict so they seek information. In buying a home they find out about the neighbors. Lots of families are good if the buyer has children. Lots of elderly neighbors is not necessarily good if the buyer has children. People use this information and voluntarily sort out the problems in advance.

Rarely are their intentions discriminatory. It isn’t that they hate the elderly. In fact it is more respect for the elderly who are not likely to want screaming children running around all day long. In reality they are not just finding the mix that is best for themselves but they are respecting the other residents as well.

You would think that in New York City the ability of people to minimize conflict and discomfort ought to be relatively easy. In reality they are not just finding the mix that is best for themselves but they are respecting the other residents as well.

One third of the residents of New York City own their home or apartment. Ownership rates have been increasing. In 1990 it was 28.7 percent, by 2000 it was 30.2 percent and today it is 33.2 percent. And according to the New York Times “the steepest jumps occurred in some of the poorest neighborhoods.” The increase in ownership is for all racial groups and across all income groups.

According to the Times about 1 million New Yorkers now own their homes. If these represent 33 percent of households owning property then we can estimate there are about 3 million residences in New York City. Three million apartments, condos and homes are a quite a number. Out of 3 million options there ought to be something for most people.

The problem is that the city government has made answering rational questions illegal. It is assumed, without any evidence, that a building that has many families in it, which informs potential elderly tenants of this, is actually discriminating against the elderly. The elderly tenant is more likely to see it as a nice advance warning that the building won’t be a quiet one. And if the building is mainly elderly and a potential tenant is told this fact then it is discrimination against families.

In the view of the bickering politicians, always jostling for power with each other, everyone else in the city acts the same way they do. They assume that people are just waiting for an excuse to do each other dirty and that even the most innocent of questions are imbued with bigotry. Apparently this bigotry is endemic with absolutely everyone being a bigot one second and a victim the next. Old people are victims if told a building has lots of children. Families are bigots if the told the building has lots of elderly tenants.

So to protect everyone from everyone the city has banned the passing on of factual information. You can not even hint that a building is good for families with children because other children live there. As one rental agent put it: “If a family with children want to know if there are other children the same age in a building, we’re supposed to say, ‘You should stand outside the building between 2 and 5 p.m. and see who walks in.’” As the New York Times reports:
The strict interpretation of fair-housing laws prohibits brokers from providing information about people that could be construed as discriminatory in any of 14 protected categories. The categories include familiar ones like race, religion, sex and disabilities and less well-known ones like familial status, marital status, citizenship and occupation. So a broker who says something like, “There are tons of little kids in this building — it’s really family friendly” could be accused of specifically steering families to the building and driving people without children away from it.
And the New York State Legislature passed a new law which says that anyone acting as a real estate broker must take three hours of “fair housing” indoctrination. You wouldn’t want people inadvertently telling other people useful information. And a lot of the broker’s customers are very unhappy with them for refusing to provide useful information.

Neil Garfinkel works for the Real Estate Board of New York. His job is censorship training. He works for the government and spends his time telling people what words are permitted and what words are not permitted. He is to brokers what a book burner is to librarians. He tells brokers to tell tenants that they must abide by the law and when the tenant asks questions about the tenants of the building the broker is supposed to say: “Remember we talked about fair-housing laws? This is what’s against the law for me to talk about.”

When something is against the law, if the law is enforced, that means police agents, prepared to use as much force as necessary, will come along. They will take you captive or fine you. If you refuse to co-operate in either case they get increasingly more and more violent. So when Mr. Garfinkel so blithely says refers to talking as being illegal what he is saying is that we are prepared to crack some skulls in order to shut people up. That is censorship.

Garfinkel is promoting is the legal punishment of people who pass on valid, true and useful information. Censor Garfinkel warns brokers not to even tell people which school district a building is in. Follow this moron’s logic:

He said that while it is all right to name a school district when specifically asked, the fact should not be advertised because some school districts have distinctive racial compositions and advertising the district could be seen as a way of expressing preference for a specific race. Brokers are often stunned by this prohibition, he said, “but I’m a lawyer, and I’m going by the strict letter of the law.”

Garfinkel thinks the worse of people. Most people want good schools for their kids. And with a state monopoly on education, unless they can afford private schooling, the only way to try to improve their children’s education is to move to districts with better schools. Parents are more concerned about the quality of the school than the color of the students. A parent obsessed with the color of students is a bad parent who would be willing to subject their children to inferior state education just so they can sit next to someone of the same skin tone.

Censor Garfinkel makes it clear that even everyday normal conversation is illegal for a broker. If you meet someone new you ask them questions. It is considered polite. “So what do you do?” is one of those questions that people often ask each. Take a Berlitz course in any language and one of the first things they teach you is to ask a person about their employment. Normal, yes. But for brokers it is illegal. One broker who went through Garfinkel’s course on guidelines for the Holy Inquisition said that the ban on asking people about their job blew everyone’s mind. “I don’t think we’ve recovered from that yet,” he said. “The point is that what’s normal and everyday may not be legal.”

To quote Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens: “If the law supposes that the law is an ass—a idiot.” And if the law is an ass, and in this case it surely is, what does it saw about the men and women who wrote the law?

Once again this reveals the problem with the state. Government is a sledgehammer. And swinging sledgehammers is sometimes useful and necessary. But when you use them outside their proper limits you end up doing far more damage than good.

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