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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Fixing up the Neighborhood or Crossing a Line?

Recently a friend asked me about how to deal with a building owner who’s legitimately not being a good neighbor. In discussing the situation, I began to think about where to draw the line between being a good citizen enforcer of laws and being an obnoxious neighbor. It’s one thing to call out an entity like Shiloh or the Parks Service for its stewardship of vacant structures; it’s another thing to call out a well meaning neighbor who is legally mis-stepping without bad intentions. Or is it? Complicating matters is the fact that abiding by the letter of the law might not always be the best thing for the neighborhood. So where does one draw the line?

Here are a few scenarios I contemplate in this post:

+ A neighbor is doing construction necessitating a permit but without one. Call DCRA? What if you know that calling DCRA (and the corresponding stop work order and/or fine that would ensue) would likely undermine the possibility of any foreseeable progress on the otherwise run down building?

+ Squatters are living in a building. The owner is aware of their presence but is taking no action to have them removed. Call DCRA? Would it make a difference if the squatters are a family who would otherwise be homeless? Would it make a difference if the squatters are illegal aliens? If illegal aliens, would a call to INS ever be justifiable?

+ A neighbor is violating his property’s zoned use (e.g., operating a business out of a zoned residence and not residing the structure at all). Call DCRA? What if you know the residential zoning is inappropriate for the structure?

Obviously directly confronting the neighbor about the infraction and/or helping the neighbor come into compliance with the law is probably the best option, but sometimes that’s not always possible. Thoughts?


Mari said...

Not a good answer, but the one that reflects what I've done...
If the infraction is small and the person approachable then I sometimes mention something in passing. If it is something I can fix myself, I've gone as far to take out the tools and fix the problem.
Then there have been the people who piss me off and I look for every little minor infraction calling DCRA and the Tax office.

Anonymous said...

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The fine points, or a guide to newcomers: 1. We have ANC Commissioners who act as DC's Cuban Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and turn people in to the Government. You do not/not turn your neighbor in if work is proceding without harm to him/her, you, and your other neighbors. It is morally, ethically and politically evil. 2. squatters must be extricated or they will set the house on fire -- sometimes what the owners want to collect insurance or get around restoring a historic slum property. I have seen several instances of this "crack lightening." I drove the whores out of La Putain qui Pue twice with no moral remorse. 3. Turn in anyone who thinks they can cheat the city with multiple Homestead Exemptions. You are otherwise aiding and abetting tax fraud. No, not everyone does it. 4. There is a difference between working at home (and even claiming a tax deduction on that room) [I worked as a translator for many years at home] and running a business out of the home that involves stock, inventory, clientele coming in and out, loading and unloading. The first is legit, the second illegal and should be taxed commercially. Whether you turn the person(s) in is, however, an ethical judgement call and should be made in consultation with other neighbors and only after confronting the infractor. Ray

Shaw Rez said...

All good points. Perhaps my "work without a permit" scenario was a little tame without more, as I don't support blowing the whistle for the sake of blowing the whistle at any and all infractions. And, to reiterate, the first step to be taken should be to discuss whatever infraction has caught your eye with the infringing neighbor (as opposed to calling the illegal construction number ASAP when an otherwise good neighbor is in violation) whenever possible.

Perhaps the above begs the question what makes a "bad neighbor," unworthy of the courtesy of discussing a problem before placing a call to the city? By what standard(s) is/are a neighbor judged?