County Needs To Shift From Coercive Ordinances To Cooperation And Collaboration To Solve Community Problems

Los Alamos

Thanks for voting for me, if you did, and I’m sorry if you did not.  I lost the exact count after a while, but in my campaign for Assessor this year I knocked on well over a thousand doors in many neighborhoods all over the County.  I had many interesting discussions, which is what I have always loved about campaigning.  

This year, one of the things that was on my mind as I went through the neighborhoods was the impending adoption of a new Chapter 18, the dreaded and much-reviled Nuisance Code. After awhile I began to see the neighborhoods and houses I visited through the lens of a code inspector!  Two conclusions:  There aren’t many homes in Los Alamos that a diligent inspector couldn’t find fault with, and the costs to bring many of them up to the standards of the new code, under threat of criminal sanctions, will be substantial – especially in the older, less affluent areas of the county.

The other lens I carry with me is that of a poverty lawyer, which is the essence of what I did in my second career after retiring from the lab.  In that role one begins to see our society as a sort of ecosystem, the obvious, visible parts of which are inhabited by the wealthy, powerful, and privileged. As in a forest environment upon close inspection and perhaps a little digging you can discover myriad creatures inhabiting little niches among the ruling trees, lions, and shrubs, so in our society the less affluent, less capable, disabled, elderly, undesirable, and vulnerable find little niches to sustain themselves.  Social workers and lawyers who work with this population learn early that they typically live carefully balanced on an economic knife edge – meaning that they are vulnerable to even the slightest disturbance to their niche – an increase in rent, job loss, medical bill, flat tire, or demand that they paint the house can trigger a financial apocalypse that can end in bankruptcy, loss of children, homelessness.  This is fact, not an idle fantasy, even in wealthy Los Alamos.

This is what gentrification does.  The seemingly laudable urge to clean up neighborhoods, to eliminate clutter and spruce up the old houses, is not driven by the people who live in those old houses.  From the perspective of those who make the rules here, it seems so easy.  They ask, why don’t they just paint the place ($5,000), enclose the carport ($20,000), haul off the junk car ($200)?  Because those numbers can push people over the edge, is why.  

Not to mention – well – why don’t these guys just mind their own business?

Or if they want to make it their business, then why don’t they work a little harder to seek solutions to helping people to clean up – paint up – fix up that don’t involve the heavy hand of the law.  Solutions that are sensitive to the capabilities and financial situations of the property owners.  Lately it seems that the county’s solution to every problem is coercive law (remember the proposed downtown pedestrian and vacant commercial building ordinances, and some parts of the proposed Development Code?) rather than working with property owners to learn their perspectives and seek negotiated solutions.

I recognize and appreciate that many of the more egregious proposed changes in the nuisance code have been eliminated.  Some problems remain and others (the CDAB, for one) have pointed them out.  But it is a vast improvement over the present code so if nothing else I will be grateful to see that abomination finally removed.  What I’d really like to see is a shift in the County paradigm – from coercive ordinances to cooperation and collaboration to solve community problems.