Fights between suburban neighbors turn more rancorous, according to lawyers

According to some sources, legal fights between suburban neighbors are now worse:

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Neighbors have long bickered over fences, hedges and property borders. But lawyers involved in such tangles say the pandemic, which kept many people and their neighbors at home—and on one another’s nerves—far more, turned suburban sparring especially toxic. The rancor, they say, hasn’t eased up. Allegations of late have touched on topics including flying dirt, flowerpot placement and stray balls bouncing into a yard…

The leading reasons for flaps between neighbors are trees, fences, parking and noise, “probably in that order,” said Emily Doskow, a lawyer and mediator who edited the book “Neighbor Law.” “Everyone knows that having problems with your neighbors is one of the worst quality-of-life killers ever.”

The New York Peace Institute, a nonprofit that helps people resolve conflicts, got more calls during the pandemic about neighbor disputes, said Jessica Lopez, a program manager who coordinates mediations. Two years later, the caseload hasn’t slowed, she said, adding, “It’s a new normal.”

In a country where protecting single-family homes is vital, suburbanites prize single-family homes, and homeownership is an ongoing ideal plus suburbanites often relate through “moral minimalism,” perhaps this trend is not too surprising.

At the same time, as a sociologist, there are multiple questions I ask after reading this:

  1. Is there a way to get data on this? Are the number of neighbor disputes up in the courts or in lawsuits? Not all disputes go to court; would qualitative data in communities also reveal this?
  2. What exactly was the role of COVID-19 in this? One answer could be that more people spent time at home. Another could be that COVID-19 racheted up tension and disrupted regular social interactions. A third could be that rising property values and demand for property in some places pushed people to see their property differently.
  3. How many communities have alternative options for mediating disputes like these rather than going to court? Are there implementable models that suburbs could offer?

Why might suburban leaders head up legal challenge to IL law ending cash bail?

A lawsuit led by suburban officials challenges a new Illinois law in court:

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When more than half of Illinois’ state’s attorneys go to court in Kankakee County next month in a last-ditch effort to block the controversial SAFE-T Act, the proceedings will have a distinctly suburban flavor.

The offices of McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally and Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow have been chosen to serve as lead counsel in a lawsuit they and 61 of their peers have filed seeking to have the massive criminal justice reform bill ruled unconstitutional…

The state’s attorneys argue that violates several parts of the state constitution, including the Separation of Powers Clause by stripping judges of their full authority to detain defendants, set monetary bail and revoke bail. They also argue that a portion of the Act that gives police discretion to release defendants without bail on low-level offenses unlawfully takes that authority away from the courts…

The state’s attorneys argue that violates several parts of the state constitution, including the Separation of Powers Clause by stripping judges of their full authority to detain defendants, set monetary bail and revoke bail. They also argue that a portion of the Act that gives police discretion to release defendants without bail on low-level offenses unlawfully takes that authority away from the courts.

Suburban counties are not the only ones party to this lawsuit, but is it meaningful that they are leading the effort? A few general patterns scholars might point to:

  1. The image and ideology of suburbs suggests they are safe places relatively free of crime.
  2. Where does crime happen? It is viewed as a problem of cities and urban centers.
  3. The first two points are connected to long-term suburban patterns of exclusion by race/ethnicity and social class. Who commits crime? Not the typical suburbanite.
  4. Suburbs have a long history of fear of crime. And they act regularly in their suburban communities regarding crime, ranging from creating gated communities to supporting police efforts to choices about development and amenities.
  5. A suburban fear of crime is linked to particular political patterns and activity, including Nixon and the Republican Party’s “Southern strategy” to then-President Trump’s 2020 claim that the suburbs are under threat.

Put these factors together and suburban leadership on this issue may be no surprise.

The difficulty in removing racial covenants from deeds

Many properties in the United States had racial covenants written into their deeds where it was stated that the property could not be sold to people of particular racial and ethnic groups. Removing those statements on deeds today can be a difficult task:

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Cisneros, who is white, said she wanted the covenant removed immediately and went to the county recorder’s office. What she thought would be a simple process actually was cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming. She took time off work and had to get access to a private subscription service typically available only to title companies and real estate lawyers. There were forms to fill out that required her to know how property records work. She also had to pay for every document she filed…

In the end, Cisneros learned that the offensive language couldn’t be removed. That is often the case in other cities if officials there believe that it’s wrong to erase a covenant from the public record. Instead, the county agreed to attach a piece of paper to Cisneros’ covenant disavowing the language…

Sullivan knew the only way to rid the language from the record was to lobby elected officials. She teamed up with a neighbor, and together they convinced Illinois Democratic state Rep. Daniel Didech to sponsor a bill. The lawmaker found an ally in Democratic state Sen. Adriane Johnson. The bill allows property owners and homeowners associations to remove the offensive and unlawful language from covenants for no more than $10 through their recorder of deeds office and in 30 days or less, Johnson said. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, signed the bill into law in July. It takes effect in January 2022…

Illinois becomes the latest state to enact a law to remove or amend racially restrictive covenants from property records. Maryland passed a law in 2020 that allows property owners to go to court and have the covenants removed for free. And in September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed a bill that streamlines the process to remove the language. Several other states, including Connecticut and Virginia, have similar laws.

I could see how many Americans today would want to strike the racial covenant from their current property but their ability to do so depends on local laws. Righting past wrongs is no quick task, even when later actions have nullified the effects of the earlier language in these deeds.

And there could be a lot of racial covenants out there:

It’s impossible to know exactly how many racially restrictive covenants remain on the books throughout the U.S., though Winling and others who study the issue estimate there are millions. The more than 3,000 counties throughout the U.S. maintain land records, and each has a different way of recording and searching for them. Some counties, such as San Diego County and Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, have digitized their records, making it easier to find the outlawed covenants. But in most counties, property records are still paper documents that sit in file cabinets and on shelves. In Cook County, Illinois, for instance, finding one deed with a covenant means poring through ledgers in the windowless basement room of the county recorder’s office in downtown Chicago. It’s a painstaking process that can take hours to yield one result.

The deeds and the potential racial covenants contained therein highlight how land and property is acquired, obtained, and passed along in the United States. There is much to consider there: how was the land acquired and from whom? Who does it benefit now and in the future?

“Halfheartedly” air a first episode at 1:30 AM on FXX to keep the TV rights

An overview of a potential blockbuster Amazon TV show includes this paragraph about how the television rights continued:

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At the time of Judkins’s pitch, the screen rights to The Wheel of Time were just coming out of a byzantine and uniquely Hollywood maze—the books had been optioned by two former tech guys, who in turn licensed the rights to Universal, which developed the series as a feature and then shelved it. Then the tech guys enlisted two new producers, Mike Weber and Ted Field. In time, they noticed an obscure provision in the contract, as Weber recalled. It turned out, he said, that “if you aired an episode of television, the rights will vest in perpetuity.” As in, any episode of television at all. And so one mysterious night in 2015—just before the rights to the books were scheduled to return to Jordan’s widow—an episode aired on FXX at 1:30 a.m., halfheartedly adapting the first book’s prologue and starring, for some reason, Billy Zane. The show, such as it was, aired only once and was never seen again. “That’s not the prettiest way to do it,” Weber admitted. “But it cleaned up the rights.” (McDougal Rigney, who released an unhappy statement about this gambit at the time, has since come back into the fold as a consulting producer.)

This is one way to hold on to the rights. It sounds like it all was legal via an “obscure provision.” It would be interesting to hear more about why the provision was in the contract (was it considered a deterrent since it required a television episode to be made?), what was in the 1:30 AM episode, and how all the involved actors responded.

And if The Wheel of Time becomes a megahit in the vein of Game of Thrones, this will look like a necessary and genius move.

The difficulties of defining religion, COVID-19 religious exemptions edition

With people seeking religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, the question of how to define religion arises.

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Exemption requests are testing the boundaries of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements based on religious beliefs that are “sincerely held.”

To the benefit of objectors like Holmes, the provision defines “religion” broadly. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has specified that religious objections do not have to be recognized by an organized religion and can be beliefs that are new, uncommon or “seem illogical or unreasonable to others.”

They cannot, however, be based only on social or political beliefs. That means employers must try to distinguish between primarily political objections from people who may happen to be religious and objections that are actually religious at their core.

For many skeptics, resistance tends to be based not on formal teachings from an established faith leader but an ad hoc blend of online conspiracies and misinformation, conservative media and conversations with like-minded friends and family members.

This would not be a surprise to sociologists of religion and others who analyze religion in the United States. On the one hand, American religiosity has formal patterns. There are established religious traditions, denominations, and congregations. Christianity has been a dominant religious form and so its beliefs and practices are widespread. The First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and no state religion have provided room for religious groups to develop and grow.

On the other hand, for at least a few decades, American religion has been marked by a willingness by many to decide what their own religion will be comprised of. This ranges from people who attend a congregation but do not necessarily agree with important doctrines or practices to those who create a highly individualized faith that draws on multiple traditions. From the “Sheilaism” of the 1980s discussed in Habits of the Heart to those today who would say they are spiritual but not religious,

This then means that a definition of religion is difficult. Is it as simply as saying that someone “would know religion when they see it?” If the law needs precision in order to make decisions, this definition and its interpretation will be very important to deciding who has a viable religious exemption and who does not.

What would happen if the Supreme Court addresses inclusionary zoning?

A legal case involving zoning in Marin County, California may make it to the Supreme Court.

Back in May, authorities in Marin entered into a new voluntary compliance agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build new low-income housing outside areas where black or brown residents make up the majority. This is now the county’s second big push since 2010 to satisfy the government’s demand that it work on desegregating its affordable housing.

Fair housing is a challenge for Marin, an enclave of million-dollar bungalows across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. According to a nonprofit project called Race Counts, it has the highest racial disparities of any county in California. That’s in part because Marin County doesn’t want to build any housing. Homeowners here are at the forefront of NIMBY efforts to stop plans for new construction, whether they’re local, regional, or statewide.

The county’s iron grip on its land is the backdrop for a case that may soon appear before the U.S. Supreme Court. Back in 2000, two Marin County property owners, Dartmond and Esther Cherk, looked to split their undeveloped land into two single-family-zoned lots. As developers, they were liable to preserve some part of the property for affordable housing or pay into a low-income housing production fund. The fee was nearly $40,000; the Cherks sued.

The Marin County case may test the constitutionality of inclusionary zoning, a tool that local jurisdictions rely on to expand the supply of affordable housing, especially in tight housing markets. The court has expressed an interest in the case, which the justices may wind up using as a wedge to reshape property rights. It’s possible the inclusionary zoning ordinances—and local regulations more broadly construed—will not stand under the court’s scrutiny.

I’m on the record suggesting the Supreme Court would approve inclusionary zoning. While this piece suggests conservatives on the court might be spoiling to affirm property rights, the courts more broadly have helped develop plans to promote more affordable housing (think the Gautreaux case in Chicago or the Mount Laurel decision in New Jersey). Earlier decisions did not eviscerate property rights but they did suggest that the responsibility for housing was wider than a single community and its zoning. Additionally, having developers pay a fee into an affordable housing fund or provide some units of affordable housing as part of the larger project is common practice across American communities.

Beyond just the actions of Marin County and its own housing supply and population composition, the bigger issue is this: if a community or township or county restricts development and/or housing, it puts a bigger burden on other municipalities in the same metropolitan region to provide housing. And if many municipalities refuse certain kinds of development, more affordable housing ends up in a limited number of places that are (1) not necessarily located near jobs and (2) relatively lower-class. Housing is an issue best tackled by a whole metropolitan area (as are other issues including mass transit and transportation). More dispersed outcomes would likely lead to better outcomes across the region with the biggest loss being the communities that cannot easily remain as exclusive as they would like.

 

American laws privileging driving, zoning, and differential effects

A law professor summarizes how American law reinforces driving in multiple ways:

A key player in the story of automobile supremacy is single-family-only zoning, a shadow segregation regime that is now justifiably on the defensive for outlawing duplexes and apartments in huge swaths of the country. Through these and other land-use restrictions—laws that separate residential and commercial areas or require needlessly large yards—zoning rules scatter Americans across distances and highway-like roads that are impractical or dangerous to traverse on foot. The resulting densities are also too low to sustain high-frequency public transit…

As a matter of law, the operating-speed method is exceptional. It enables those who violate the law—speeding motorists—to rewrite it: Speed limits ratchet higher until no more than 15 percent of motorists violate them. The perverse incentives are obvious. Imagine a rule saying that, once 15 percent of Americans acquired an illegal type of machine gun, that weapon would automatically become legal. Other legislation amplifies the harm from this method. In California, for example, cities are sometimes obligated by law to raise speed limits against their will, and local governments are barred from lowering them even for safety reasons. This occurs against a backdrop of radical under-enforcement of the speed limit nationally, and the widespread banning of proven but unpopular lifesaving technologies such as automated speed cameras.

Just as telling as what activities the law regulates is whose interests it seeks to protect. Dozens of our peer nations require carmakers to mitigate harm to pedestrians caused by their products. U.S. design regulations, however, require only measures that enhance the safety of car occupants. Just as SUVs are becoming taller, heavier, and more prevalent—and pedestrian fatalities are surging—U.S. regulators have not required carmakers to embrace those more comprehensive design standards. Instead, they’ve launched campaigns baselessly blaming pedestrians for their own deaths…

In a similar spirit, criminal law has carved out a lesser category uniquely for vehicular manslaughter. Deep down, all of us who drive are afraid of accidentally killing someone and going to jail; this lesser charge was originally envisioned to persuade juries to convict reckless drivers. Yet this accommodation reflects a pattern. Even when a motorist kills someone and is found to have been violating the law while doing so (for example, by running a red light), criminal charges are rarely brought and judges go light. So often do police officers in New York fail to enforce road-safety rules—and illegally park their own vehicles on sidewalks and bike facilities—that specific Twitter accounts are dedicated to each type of misbehavior. Given New York’s lax enforcement record, the Freakonomics podcast described running over pedestrians there as “the perfect crime.”

Several related thoughts after reading the plentiful examples:

  1. The first example provided involved single-family home zoning. Cars and homes are intimately linked in the United States and particularly in the suburbs.
  2. I would be interested to see more discussion of how the legal structures arose alongside the rise of driving in the United States. Was it a back and forth? Did the quick acceptance of driving push the legal system in certain directions or did early legal changes give driving a boost?
  3. The approach of this article reminds me a bit of The Color of Law with the emphasis on the legal system. And the overall argument seems to be that such laws force Americans into driving. But, are there precedent-setting legal cases that could reverse this? Does the legal preference for driving rise to the level of discrimination? A case could be made since driving is expensive and owning a reliable car and driving is related to class which in the United States is also tied to race. Homeownership helps build wealth for certain groups that own but could driving also do the same? Or consider spatial mismatch where jobs and economic opportunities might be hard to access without a significant drive via car.
  4. How might this change with driverless cars and autonomous vehicles? The current system seems to privilege drivers but what if there are not drivers but rather processors, companies, and vehicle owners?

Gautreaux remediation may end soon in Chicago

Filed in the 1960s, decided in the 1970s, and with remediation lasting decades, a case involving a class-action lawsuit charging racial discrimination in public housing in Chicago may end in 2024:

The Chicago Housing Authority and lawyers representing CHA residents have asked U.S. District Judge Marvin Aspen to approve the agreement creating a road map for the CHA to complete its obligations under the so-called Gautreaux litigation.

Under the plan, the nearly 53-year-old case would come to a close by July 2024, marking an end to a landmark chapter in the national civil rights movement.

The settlement agreement provides a detailed timeline for the CHA to complete all planned mixed-income units and strengthen its housing voucher program to better enable families to move to more affluent areas if they choose to do so…

The lawsuit changed the face of public housing by instituting “scattered site” projects built on a small scale and dispersed in neighborhoods throughout the city — a stark contrast to the high-rise buildings constructed in the 1950s and 1960s.

This important lawsuit and ruling has both had significant effects on how policymakers have addressed concentrated poverty (more emphasis on scattering poor residents) as well as likely had limited effects because of the limited number of poor residents who have had and taken advantage of new opportunities to live in wealthier communities.

What is also striking about this is that the era of large-scale public housing and its associations with concentrated poverty are likely over. Hopefully, this does not mean less attention is paid to residential segregation and affordable housing issues but it is easier for the general public to ignore problems that are less visible.

How postwar DuPage County used zoning to limit poorer and non-white residents

I was recently reading the 1976 political science book Poliscide and part of Chapter 8 on the postwar zoning practices of DuPage County caught my attention:

Although no county can place guards at the county line to inspect the socioeconomic and racial characteristics of newcomers, such powers as zoning and control over subdivision and building codes make the county a highly effective arbiter of the types of structures to be built and, hence, the final arbiter of the types of people who will live in its jurisdiction.

For example, DuPage County enacts a subdivision ordinance requiring a developer to retain a large portion of his prospective subdivision for public facilities such as parks and schools; the county combines this with a zoning ordinance requiring single-family dwellings and a large minimum lot size. This effectively prohibits a developer from profitably building anything but high-cost housing not accessible to lower-income persons.

Stringent county building code standards, requiring expensive building materials and high-quality plumbing, wiring, and heating systems, also serve to increase housing costs. The county’s industrial zoning policy restricting heavy industry serves to limit job opportunity for lower-income persons and to prevent a decline in residential property values surrounding an industrial development – which might create housing opportunities for lower-income groups. Moreover, the county’s relations with various financial institutions make it difficult for a developer to secure financing for a project not approved by the county. Indeed, because of the obstacles the county is capable of placing in the path of a developer, the county’s objection may be sufficient to convince a financial institution that investment in a project would be unwise.

The county’s relations with other units of government give it yet another means of influencing the course of residential and industrial development. It is not, for example, an uncommon practice in Illinois for the county forest preserve district to condemn, at the count government’s behest, land on which an unwelcome development is planned…. And courts have made it a point not to intervene. If the acquisition was for a “public purpose,” there is no inclination to examine the underlying motives. (179-180)

And, as the political scientists point out, these were all legal procedures. Local governments, whether at the municipality, township, or county level, often have the power to dictate what can be built on the land over which they have jurisdiction.

At the same time, there have been court cases seeking to reverse these zoning powers. In 1971, DuPage County residents and a local fair-housing group brought suit against the county for exclusionary zoning practices. The Mount Laurel cases in New Jersey led to famous decisions suggesting municipalities cannot completely restrict cheaper housing (even if implementation has been messy).

More broadly, Sonia Hirt argues zoning in the United States serves one primary purpose: single-family homes. When wealthier suburbanites or urban dwellers get the opportunity to live in the homes they want or ones that have plenty of desirable traits, they tend to resist efforts to include cheaper housing nearby. (For a more recent urban case, see Portland.)

To some degree, the plan worked for a while in DuPage County. The authors of Poliscide say the county was the 3rd wealthiest in the nation, businesses were growing, and much of the development was relatively high-end. Yet, things changed over time. In the 2010 Census, DuPage County was the 62nd wealthiest county in the United States. (It would be interesting to analyze what role zoning played in vaulting all those other counties above DuPage County.) In the same census, the white along population was just over 70%. Some of this might be due to how the authors of Poliscide suggest municipalities fought back against the county: they moved to incorporate themselves as well as annex land so that they took over jurisdiction of land and DuPage County had less control over new development.

Recommendations to help with SCOTUS’ innumeracy

In the wake of recent comments about “sociological gobbledygook” and measures of gerrymandering, here are some suggestions for how the Supreme Court can better use statistical evidence:

McGhee, who helped develop the efficiency gap measure, wondered if the court should hire a trusted staff of social scientists to help the justices parse empirical arguments. Levinson, the Texas professor, felt that the problem was a lack of rigorous empirical training at most elite law schools, so the long-term solution would be a change in curriculum. Enos and his coauthors proposed “that courts alter their norms and standards regarding the consideration of statistical evidence”; judges are free to ignore statistical evidence, so perhaps nothing will change unless they take this category of evidence more seriously.

But maybe this allergy to statistical evidence is really a smoke screen — a convenient way to make a decision based on ideology while couching it in terms of practicality.

“I don’t put much stock in the claim that the Supreme Court is afraid of adjudicating partisan gerrymanders because it’s afraid of math,” Daniel Hemel, who teaches law at the University of Chicago, told me. “[Roberts] is very smart and so are the judges who would be adjudicating partisan gerrymandering claims — I’m sure he and they could wrap their minds around the math. The ‘gobbledygook’ argument seems to be masking whatever his real objection might be.”

If there is indeed innumeracy present, the justices would not be alone in this. Many Americans do not receive an education in statistics, let alone have enough training to make sense of the statistics regularly used in academic studies.

At the same time, we might go further than the argument made above: should judges make decisions based on statistics (roughly facts) more than ideology or arguments (roughly interpretation)? Again, many Americans struggle with this: there can be broad empirical patterns or even correlations but some would insist that their own personal experiences do not match these. Should judicial decisions be guided by principles and existing case law or by current statistical realities? The courts are not the only social spheres that struggle with this.