Disabled People Can Lose Their Homes for Not Mowing the Lawn
August 1, 2019 12:40 PM   Subscribe

Richard McGary lost his home because he wasn’t able to clean his yard. hen McGary lived in Portland, Oregon, a city inspector decided he had too much debris in his yard and cited his home as a “nuisance” property under the city’s local nuisance ordinance. McGary, who was living with AIDS, asked volunteers from a local AIDS project to help. But before they could clear the yard to the city’s satisfaction, McGary was hospitalized with AIDS-related complications. His patient advocate informed the city that McGary was an individual with a disability and requested more time, but Portland refused. The city issued a warrant for violating the city’s chronic nuisance ordinance, and charged him $1,818.83 for the cost of clean-up. When McGary couldn’t pay, Portland claimed rights to his home — and forced McGary sell it to satisfy his debt to the city.
posted by xingcat (29 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
Disabled people are also at risk of losing their benefits when they get married. The rules dictating how disabled people can live is nothing short of free-range imprisonment, and considering the US is painfully behind on updating buildings per the ADA, the range really isn't that free.

As a side note, saying they "can" lose their homes because of this is sort of beside the point. Laws like this are written to target people that aren't "productive" enough under capitalism. I have faced this problem before, due to mental illness and being chronically poor.
posted by FirstMateKate at 12:50 PM on August 1, 2019 [65 favorites]


And the damage of "broken windows" policing continues. It's amazing how a theory with no actual evidence behind it has been so widely accepted - and caused so much misery.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:52 PM on August 1, 2019 [22 favorites]


There's an ongoing discussion on this issue in the similar thread a few days ago.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 12:57 PM on August 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


...a property can be declared a “nuisance” after just two 911 calls.

So basically, if you need help, you are too much trouble to be bothered with?
posted by davejay at 1:03 PM on August 1, 2019 [17 favorites]


The part of expected housing maintenance that I get angriest about is the expectation that property owners - not municipalities - will clear sidewalks of snow. What this inevitably creates are:

1. Issues with those who are unable to shovel being reliant on others to help or deal with the same sort of billing/nuisance calls.
2. Issues with pedestrians having to walk through unevenly shoveled sidewalks, because time between snowfall and enforcement usually means that reporting unshoveled sidewalks usually does nothing.
3. Sidewalks are never, ever cleared to a width that accommodates wheelchairs for an entire block (and if they do, the cutouts almost always disappear), so anyone who uses one is just expected to be in the street for four months out of the year, because that's safe.
4. Suburbanites not wanting sidewalks because they'd have to maintain them (apparently?).
posted by dinty_moore at 1:05 PM on August 1, 2019 [45 favorites]


I thought about this a ton this winter, when I spent an hour every morning chipping away at the ice on my front walk. The city will come and fine you if your front walk is icy, which is totally fair, because that's a hazard to everyone, and especially to disabled people. But what if you don't have the mobility or strength (and it takes considerable strength) to do it? You could quickly start racking up fines.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:06 PM on August 1, 2019 [12 favorites]


McGary's appeal was decided by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in October 2004. Using such an old case as the basis of the article looks like lazy journalism.
posted by monotreme at 1:31 PM on August 1, 2019 [11 favorites]


4. Suburbanites not wanting sidewalks because they'd have to maintain them (apparently?).
Most suburbs don't expect home owners to 'maintain' sidewalks in the same way that cities do. Maybe snow blowing in cold climates, but certainly nothing beyond that.

I'm of two minds on this. I think this type of enforcement is good, as it effects a city's tax base and that basic maintenance expectations should be caught before the property becomes essentially a slumlord target.

But also that cities should have a fund to pay for some subset of its citizens when they get in trouble like this, the cases typically take months (so they know exactly who is being obstinate and who cannot pay for whatever reason), and the enforcement action typically costs more than costs to maintain whatever is not compliant. Especially for nonsense like lawn mowing. I mean cities have billions for new growth/roads/tax breaks for developers but couldn't spare $200k to help thousands of their own citizens? Please.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:32 PM on August 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


im shocked that governmental bodies don't give a shit about people. i really am
posted by Bwentman at 1:36 PM on August 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


I've read some crazy stories about Portland city inspectors. They can decide things like your sidewalks are too bumpy, assign the repairs to a contractor of their choice and serve you up with a bill for tens of thousands of dollars. It's a system that seems ripe for abuse--somebody working for the city can decide they don't like you and take your house away from you.
posted by Bee'sWing at 1:39 PM on August 1, 2019 [10 favorites]


Got to watch out for adverse impact....
posted by childofTethys at 1:51 PM on August 1, 2019


I own a house next to a poorly maintained multi-tenant rental property. The yard is full of invasive weeds, including poison ivy, that I battle on a weekly basis when they creep into my garden during the summer. The lawn is mowed maybe five times a year and we have issues with yellow jackets flocking around rotting apples from a neglected apple tree.

But I would still choose dealing with that mess over active nuisance property enforcement. I would rather my elderly neighbor mow their lawn infrequently, than have them hurt themselves to maintain the grass on a steep incline. I'd prefer people doing what they can with their yards because no one owes me a nicer view. I like that people grow corn in the front yard and let their pumpkin patch get out of control. I don't know if it's the nieghborhood cats or the growing population of falcons, but the rats have not gotten out of control despite some lengthy ground cover.

My neighborhood is a rapidly-graying, blue-collar kind of place. I frequently see the people who work in my local grocery store walking to work because it's an affordable place. It is not a place of manicured lawns. Some people have the inclination plant flowers and other people let the grass get shaggy.

I do fantasize about the house next door being blown down in a wind storm or condemned due to foundation problems, mostly because the landlord is a truly nasty person. Also, I would love to take over the lot. However, the tenants living in the apartments are pretty nice and I would hate to see them lose a good location with ample free street parking.
posted by Alison at 1:56 PM on August 1, 2019 [32 favorites]


i kind of want to send up the whelk signal over this thread, because "clean yards/shovel snow for disabled people" seems like something that's solidly in the dsa's wheelhouse.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 2:07 PM on August 1, 2019 [9 favorites]


The part of expected housing maintenance that I get angriest about is the expectation that property owners - not municipalities - will clear sidewalks of snow.

This is interesting to me, because I recently moved from Toronto (maintain your own sidewalks) to Ottawa (city-maintained) and the city does such a shitty job here that things are actually worse here. At least in Toronto you had some hope of a sidewalk that was clear, but Ottawa doesn't even aim to clear sidewalks outside the downtown core -- they aim to get them down to hardpack snow. I fine them unwalkable as someone who is relatively mobile but without great balance, and I have to imagine they are impassible for people who rely on wheelchairs or power chairs for mobility. They're consistent, but they're consistently terrible, so I mostly walk on the street from the bus stop to my house in the winter.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:15 PM on August 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


also is there anything we can do to support mcgary right now? is the city appealing the appeals court's decision, or has mcgary won? is this mess still ongoing?
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 2:17 PM on August 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


They really would rather we all just died. But they'd never admit it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:21 PM on August 1, 2019 [15 favorites]


Hm. The initial incident in McGary’s case goes back to 2000. I also think a fee for services of property cleanup of $1,800 is not out of line. He did need to pay back the City but I guarantee you that today you’d be able to set up a very low payment plan over an extended time. In Portland there are a few groups that will help property owners in similar situations to keep up their places. (McGary had an advocacy group helping him as well.) And the City has come under fire the last few years for not following through on fines for derelict property likely due in some part to folks filing suit. A current somewhat popular young commissioner ran on rent control and finding and addressing “zombie properties.” Those are more like absent owners who let their property fall apart instead of selling it or renting it. He could have paid back the City. He did not need to sell his home in order to do so. I think it’s fair for there to be standards and fines and collection of debt while also recognizing that for some people that can be incredibly onerous.
posted by amanda at 2:37 PM on August 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


This is interesting to me, because I recently moved from Toronto (maintain your own sidewalks) to Ottawa (city-maintained) and the city does such a shitty job here that things are actually worse here. At least in Toronto you had some hope of a sidewalk that was clear, but Ottawa doesn't even aim to clear sidewalks outside the downtown core -- they aim to get them down to hardpack snow.

I have a feeling that Minneapolis gets the worst of both worlds, because we get so much snow (and the temperature stays below freezing for so long, which is the biggest difference between here and Toronto - the snow doesn't melt) that by the end of January/February you do end up with smooth hardpack snow that eventually turns into a sheet of ice, then unshoveled sidewalks that at least are a little bumpy with a week's worth of footprints for balance but slow to navigate, topped off with two feet of plow-ice at the end of every block that you have to climb up and then carefully slide off of into the hardpack snow street. Penguin waddles only get one so far.

But mostly, it's the expectation that shoveling all of that snow is something that everyone has the ability (and time!) to do - or the money to push onto someone else, and the way that poor sidewalk maintenance tends to get blamed on those who suffer the most from not having clear sidewalks. There's a reason why the phrase 'heart attack snow' exists, and thinking about that for a few moments feels really cruel.
posted by dinty_moore at 2:46 PM on August 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


When we bought our first house, I was expecting to have to shovel the sidewalks. I was not expecting to have to replace the crumbling sidewalk at my own expense -- I had always assumed that was publicly provided from property taxes, just like the street paving. (Personally I'd rather that my tax dollars went to high quality sidewalks rather than streets, but good luck with that.)

But at the same time, having lived next to a disaster of a neglected property, I can understand the reasons to prevent that kind of deterioration and for the city to step in when people won't do it. That's just speaking generally, though -- the specifics of this situation sound like there were plenty of opportunities to take care of the issues in a less heavy handed way.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:44 PM on August 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


As a resident of a neighborhood that is increasingly infiltrated with them, I can testify that one is quite as agonizingly, exclusionarily NIMBY as a buncha white liberal homeowners.

(Berkeley was slightly worse. Portland is in my limited experience even worse.)
posted by aspersioncast at 6:04 PM on August 1, 2019 [6 favorites]


(that should be "no one")
posted by aspersioncast at 6:19 PM on August 1, 2019


I also think a fee for services of property cleanup of $1,800 is not out of line. He did need to pay back the City but I guarantee you that today you’d be able to set up a very low payment plan over an extended time.

Why? Why should he have to pay anything?

Do we know how bad his yard was? Did his yard pose a public health hazard (rats, leaking chemicals, standing water, garbage bags) or was someone just offended because it looked like a disabled person lived there?

Given the framing of the article and the other examples cited, I'm inclined to believe the it was the latter.

I grew up with a parent who had a chronic illness. Not spending money on superficial expenses like lawn care was one of the ways in which we got by. We were that house on the block with the overgrown yard and a pile of shipping pallets piled up out back for burning in our wood stove (DO NOT BURN PALLETS. They are fumigated when they enter the country and contain all sorts of nasty stuff we didn't know about at the time). We definitely stood out against the neatly trimmed suburban lawns because our lawn was frequently smothered in raw, undyed wood chips sourced from a local tree-cutter because it was cheaper than mowing. But we didn't have rats, and we didn't have enormous piles of garbage. As far as I'm concerned, that's all someone burdened with medical problems owes their neighbors.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 6:26 PM on August 1, 2019 [12 favorites]


Peoria was super-infuriating about this kind of thing, and (because the city is so poor) had basically no programs to assist elderly or disabled people who couldn't maintain their houses. We got a taste of it when someone revenge-reported our shitty-looking detached, behind-the-house (i.e., not visible from the street) garage to code enforcement, which, yeah, it was legit shitty-looking, but no worse than any other garage on the block, but code enforcement was a common tool of vengeance because they were capricious, random, and had shit-tons of authority. So we get a notice to remediate the garage by either having it painted top to bottom or having it pulled down in 21 days!!!! There was not a painter in the city (let alone a demolition company) that was available within that time frame. After 14 days of non-stop calling I was able to get a painter to come out and LOOK at the garage and give me a quote. With a signed estimate that had a date to begin the work, we were apparently entitled to a 60-day extension, but the code inspector told me she wasn't the one who did the extension approvals, and was forbidden to give me the contact information of the person who did them, so all I could do was call her every day to find out if I'd been given an extension (or, as she saw it, taken off her list to condemn my property in a week, presumably because I'd been given an extension -- it didn't tell her).

Anyway the painters finally did it about 15 days before the end of my apparent extension that I was never informed of one way or the other, and the code inspector signed off on it (she was allowed to do that and tell me I was free). But the whole process was so FAST, fast enough that it was extremely difficult to schedule contractors, and it was so arcane, and it was impossible to get anyone on the PHONE who had any responsibility for any of it (except for the inspector, who I didn't want to yell at because it was not her fault, and also because I needed her to sign off on my property remediation). It was maddening to navigate as a fluent speaker of English with a college degree and a knowledge of city bureaucracy, and an ability to immediately scare up a couple thousand dollars to get it dealt with and enough of a network that I could leverage friends of friends to get a contractor to prioritize my work.

Which of course it why it was a popular form of revenge harassment -- it's expensive and impossible to deal with -- but I can't even imagine trying to navigate that process without money and time and knowledge and just the privilege to repeatedly escalate with the city bureaucracy and keep demanding that it be clearly explained to me how to get an extension and demanding documentation and so on. All of which was reflected in the high rate of condemnations and home loss to leins related to code violations for poor and disabled and elderly people ... but somehow slumlords were able to keep operating actively illegal buildings for years on end.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:39 PM on August 1, 2019 [27 favorites]


He could have paid back the City. He did not need to sell his home in order to do so.

Speaking as a person living from expensive health crisis to expensive health crisis: oddly enough, we tend not to have big reserves of cash just lying around unused and unspoken-for.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:22 PM on August 1, 2019 [28 favorites]


- poorly maintained multi-tenant rental property
- I would rather my elderly neighbor mow their lawn infrequently, than have them hurt themselves to maintain the grass on a steep incline
- the landlord is a truly nasty person

Unless explicitly written in the lease, isn't this the landlord's responsibility? I live in a multi-tenant building, and none of us are expected to maintain the property. Our landlord clearly hires a lawn service to take care of the lawn once or twice a week. I ask because if you called it in, won't the city start fining the landlord? It could make him get off his ass or hire a service unless he wants to lose his property, at which point, maybe you could pick it up.

I understand if it's in their lease that the tenant needs to mow, then by all means let it go. But if it's not, well...
posted by XhaustedProphet at 9:30 PM on August 1, 2019


He could have paid back the City.

Well, first off - the city shouldn't have cleaned his yard in the first place. He was organizing with groups to get it taken care of himself when he was hospitalized due to complications from AIDs. They asked for an extension and were denied. That's bullshit. Their priority wasn't cleaning up the yard, it was getting money and getting a new homeowner in the house. And I wouldn't be surprised if whatever contractor they had on hand to do this kind of work wasn't a cousin/uncle/spouse of someone in government.
posted by FirstMateKate at 7:01 AM on August 2, 2019 [13 favorites]


"He was organizing with groups to get it taken care of himself when he was hospitalized due to complications from AIDs. They asked for an extension and were denied. "

Yeah, and the deadlines on these things are SO SHORT. There's not a lot of time to deal with them unless you can pony up cash on the spot. If I were in charge of a city with a high poverty rate (like say Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend), knowing that code enforcement is very unevenly wielded and disproportionately affects people who are poor, elderly, or disabled, I would create a city program where people for whom making these repairs is a hardship would enter "diversion" and their code violation (assuming it was not an immediate safety risk, which it's usually not) would be placed on hold while the diversion program worked with them.

You'd want a social worker and a community liaison of some sort, to help people get access to programs they're entitled to, and to connect them with resources that can help -- and, if they simply can't keep the home up safely any more (thinking about elderly people), talk about options for other housing. There are a LOT of resources out there -- like the AIDS charity that was helping this guy with his house, or "Christmas in July" groups, or "Done in a Day" drives -- but you have to know they exist and you need TIME to get everything organized. And there are innovative programs out there that cities could copy -- a church in the poor part of Peoria created a tool lending library and then built a GIGANTIC contact list of retired tradesmen willing to volunteer, and if code enforcement came and cited your house, you could go BORROW the tools to repair and AND get a list of retired tradesmen who were willing to come teach you how to paint your garage or maintain your plumbing or whatever. Their goal was to improve the neighborhood (where housing was very run-down) and to enable low-income homeowners to do more maintenance themselves without having to own all the tools for it.

But creating programs like that or connecting people to existing programs, and creating a diversion program where code violations are placed on hold as long as the disadvantaged homeowner is moving towards a resolution, would build wealth in low-income neighborhoods and keep more people in owner-occupied homes. And with a city employee who's working to connect the owner with appropriate resources, and calling weekly to check in on progress, and able to push for movement from charities or city departments or other organizations -- that would help ensure things didn't fall through the cracks and actually got done, but that the homeowner wasn't lost in a bureaucratic maze with zero accountability.

(Meanwhile code enforcement can keep busy by going to check all the rental properties for lead paint and force slumlords to remediate it as they've been required to do for MANY MANY YEARS but mostly don't bother, instead of harassing disabled homeowners who are attempting to remediate but need more time.)

And I don't want to be too hard on code enforcement -- I lived in a southern city that had basically zero code enforcement and rules were all enforced through HOAs and it suuuuuuucked, the HOAs got constantly more restrictive because there was just zero enforcement of basic livability from the city, and non-HOA housing in the city got progressively more dangerous because wealthy Republicans who all enclosed themselves in private HOAs felt it would infringe on their freedom to have code enforcement rules, while impoverished minorities lived in shitty substandard housing in the wild west of the non-HOA'd parts of the city, and then the Republicans bitched and moaned about HOAs being too strict and expensive and stifling their freedom and not letting them put up American flags and you know what's cheaper than an HOA AND can't infringe your free speech? Fucking paying taxes to have code enforcement. Code enforcement is definitely preferable to no code enforcement and to HOAs, but it's also definitely arbitrary, capricious, and wielded as a weapon against marginalized people in a community, often for cosmetic violations that don't do anything but offend someone's sense of taste. Which is to say that like just about every governmental institution in the US, it's better to have it than to not have it or to have a private version of it, but the fundamental bias of our institutions needs a LOT OF FIXING and a lot of reexamining of priorities and deciding which ones are less about safety and community health and more about enforcing particular white middle-class values about aesthetics and behavior to keep marginalized people marginalized and afraid.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:42 AM on August 2, 2019 [5 favorites]




i kind of want to send up the whelk signal over this thread, because "clean yards/shovel snow for disabled people" seems like something that's solidly in the dsa's wheelhouse.

This does feel like a Mutual Aide a DSA Chapter could do. I'd encourage chapters in these areas to look into this kind of work, possibly by just canvassing their service or checking properties with complaints via public records. This is also a good place to connect with local churches or religious organizations.
posted by The Whelk at 1:52 AM on August 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


« Older MLB trade deadline: Prospect hugging edition   |   An Island On the Brink of Collapse Makes a Huge... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments