In Nashville, complaints about vague code violations can be made anonymously. The city gets fine revenue. There are a mix of black and white, poor and rich residents, and newly gentrifying neighborhoods. The result: a perfect brew for evil busybodies, meddlers, and assholes trying to leverage the power of the state to make a buck. A story to make you mad as hell from the great Radley Balko.
…to get to the main problem, I have to take the couple’s long driveway up to the house and enter the backyard to find the carport that extends out from the home. Benford spends a lot of time under the carport. He works on the Coronet here. He tinkers at his workbench and listens to the radio. On the blistering June day I visit, it isn’t hard to see why he likes it. The trees provide shade, rustle up a nice breeze, and bathe the area in dappled light. As we talk, the couple’s lab mix Bella patrols a T-shaped patch of grass.
“See that mini fridge over there? He wrote me up for that,” Benford says, referring to the Codes inspector. “I never heard of something so dumb. A man can’t have a mini fridge in his own garage?”
Benford sighs, rolls his eyes, and continues. “He wrote me up for having tools out here. Said you can’t have tools that aren’t put away. He said I can’t have the work bench. Once I was drinking a can of soda when he came over. He told me to put it away. You believe that? I’m a grown man, and you’re telling me to put away my soda. Everything you see out here, they told me I can’t have.”
Benford’s hardly a hoarder. At worst, you could say the carport has some clutter. There are a few chairs, some tools, a grill and a couple empty kerosene tanks. In 2018, his wife suffered a fall in the shower, hit her head, and sustained injuries that required brain surgery and a long convalescence. Benford himself recently had knee surgery. So there’s also a walker, a cane and assorted medical devices.
The structure is enclosed by the house on one side. The other three sides are open. And that, apparently, is the problem. “If that was an enclosed garage, it wouldn’t be an issue,” says Jamie Hollin, the couple’s attorney. “But they can’t afford to build a garage. So the city won’t leave them alone.” The carport isn’t visible from any public space, and as far as I could tell, the surrounding neighbors would have to strain to see it.
…Those reports attracted the attention of a particular Codes inspector, who then became a thorn in the couple’s side for nearly two decades. “At first he’d only come around when she called in a complaint,” Benford says. “But then he just started showing up on his own. He’d just come into the backyard and start telling me to put things away. Neighbors told me he’d sometimes park in their driveway and watch us with binoculars.”
The Coronet also became an issue. Nashville prohibits residents from keeping inoperable or unregistered vehicles on residential properties unless they’re stored in an enclosed garage. Paradoxically, the city also forbids residents from making major repairs on their own vehicles — again, unless it’s done in an enclosed garage. For Benford, that means when the Coronet has broken down over the years, his only legal option is to have it towed to a garage and pay someone else to fix it, even though he has the skills to fix it himself. According to Benford, the same Codes inspector has repeatedly shown up at his home over the years solely to demand that Benford prove that the car is operable. “I lost count of how many times he made me do that,” Benford says. “More than 20.”
“It’s just outrageous and demeaning,” says Hollin. “You’re going to come out and make this man start his car for you on command? You’re going to put a lien on this couple’s home over an old car? Some chairs in a carport? A goddamn refrigerator?”
That is just one example:
…Because complaints are anonymous, it’s almost impossible to prove who filed them. But in 2019, Nashville’s Fox affiliate WZTV ran a series of reports alleging that developers have been weaponizing codes to target properties they want to acquire. Two reports focused on Evelyn Suggs, a beloved, then-94-year-old Black landlord in North Nashville. Suggs told the station several of her properties had recently been hit with a rash of Codes complaints. Shortly after, developers began contacting her with offers to buy those properties. Some made reference to her battles with Codes. Other local residents, including Freddie Benford, have similar stories.
It’s possible that these developers simply scoured the complaints and court records available online to find property owners with fines, then made offers to those owners. But Burt, the local builder, says he’s witnessed it firsthand. “It absolutely happens,” he says. “I’d go so far as to say it’s common. I’ve personally heard developers boast about ‘lighting up Codes’ on a property they want to buy.”
Advocates like Weiss and Maurer say this is common in other places. “It’s just eminent domain by another name,” Maurer says. “Instead of officially declaring a property blighted and handing it over to a developer, you just hit it with codes complaints until the owner is overwhelmed.”
Now on top of this nonsense add vaguely written regulations and an administrative system that thinks it’s a court but isn’t subject to any due process or oversight.
Property rights aren’t simply about buying and selling for profit they are about privacy, individuality and freedom from busybodies. The urge to collectivize all decisions is a curse. Property rights, they make good neighbors.
Addendum: Yes I am in a bad mood today. I am, however, pleased to have played a very small role in the story. Read the whole thing for more.