“What sort of people were these? What were they talking about? What office did they belong to? K. was living in a free country, after all, everywhere was at peace, all laws were decent and were upheld, who was it who dared accost him in his own home?”
—Franz Kafka, “The Trial”
Like many people whose houses were badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, my family and I have been living in a rented house since the storm. Unlike some whose houses were totalled, we could have repaired things and been home toasting our tootsies by our own fireplace by now. What happened?
Two things: zoning (as in “Twilight Zone”) and FEMA.
Our first exposure to the town zoning authorities came a couple of weeks after Sandy. We’d met with insurance adjusters, contractors and “remediation experts.” We’d had about a foot of Long Island Sound sloshing around the ground floor of our house in Connecticut, and everyone had the same advice: Rip up the floors and subfloors, and tear out anything—wiring, plumbing, insulation, drywall, kitchen cabinets, bookcases—touched by salt water. All of it had to go, and pronto, too, lest mold set in.
Yet it wasn’t until the workmen we hired had ripped apart most of the first floor that the phrase “building permit” first wafted past us. Turns out we needed one. “What, to repair our own house we need a building permit?”
Before you could get a building permit, however, you had to be approved by the Zoning Authority. And Zoning—citing FEMA regulations—would force you to bring the house “up to code,” which in many cases meant elevating the house by several feet. Now, elevating your house is very expensive and time consuming—not because of the actual raising, which takes just a day or two, but because of the required permits.
There were other surprises. A woman in our neighborhood has two adjoining properties, with a house and a cottage. She rents the house and lives in the cottage. For 29 years she has paid taxes on both. The cottage was severely damaged but she can’t tear it down and rebuild because Zoning says the plots are not zoned for two structures, never mind that for 29 years two property-tax payments were gladly accepted.
Kafka would have liked FEMA, too. We’ve met plenty of its agents. Every one we’ve encountered has been polite and oozing with sympathy. Even the lady who reduced my wife to tears was nice. The issue was my wife’s proof of income. We sent our tax return to FEMA, but that wasn’t good enough. They wanted pay stubs. My wife works as a freelance writer and editor. She doesn’t get a pay stub. Which apparently makes her a nonperson to this government agency.
In “The Road to Serfdom,” Friedrich Hayek noted that “the power which a multiple millionaire, who may be my neighbor and perhaps my employer, has over me is very much less than that which the smallest functionnaire possesses who wields the coercive power of the state on whose discretion it depends whether and how I am to be allowed to live or to work.”
And how. But what makes the phenomenon so insidious is that many of the functionaries are as friendly as can be. It’s just that they’re cogs in a machine whose overriding purpose is not service but self-perpetuation and control.
It is, as Alexis de Tocqueville saw, a recipe for a form of despotism peculiar to modern democracies. It does this, wrote Tocqueville, by enforcing “a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules” that reduces citizens “to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.” The sobering thought is that we’re all complicit in that infantilization. After all, we keep voting for the politicians who put this leviathan in place.
Just before Christmas, our 5-year-old daughter had an encounter with Santa. What did she want for Christmas? “My house back.”
It’s not only us, of course. Thousands upon thousands have been displaced, but the bullying pedantry of the zoning establishment never wavers. While our house stands empty, the city authorities even showed a sense of humor by sending us a bill for property taxes. For a house they won’t let us repair.
We’ve spent a few thousand dollars on a lawyer to appeal to Zoning, many thousands in rent, and hundreds getting a fresh appraisal of our house. The latest from our lawyer: Because of our new appraisal, we may be able to “apply for a zoning permit.” “Apply,” mind you.
I used to think that our house was, you know, our house. The bureaucrats have taught me otherwise. But then I also used to think that Franz Kafka wrote a species of dark fantasy. I know now that he was turning out nonfiction.
A version of this article appeared January 15, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: This Metamorphosis Will Require a Permit.
Please visit wsj.com.
Mr. Kimball is the author, most recently, of “The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia” (St. Augustine’s, 2012).