When City Governments Create Problems By Solving Them

| 02/07/2013 11:26am
Will Doig | Next City

Here in New York last week, a small story about a big issue made its way into the news. Nigel Warren, a 30-year-old web designer, was being fined $30,000 by the city.

His crime, according to the courts, was running an illegal hotel. What he actually did — as everyone involved basically acknowledges — was rent out his apartment for three nights while he was out of town.

It’s the kind of outrage-bait that the media loves, like the 6-year-old grade-school student suspended for pointing his finger at a classmate and making a shooting sound: pow, pow! But it also illustrates an issue that goes to the very crux of the Informal City Dialogues — the issue of municipal crackdowns creating more problems than they solve.

Last week, Sharon Benzoni wrote about Accra’s vilification of its moto-taxi drivers, one of the city’s few solutions to its horrendous traffic; in Nairobi, Sam Sturgis has reported on a city intiative to move all its urban refugees into camps, decimating the street trade they participate in; and today in Manila, Purple Romero writes about the city’s “jolly jeeps,” which turned a food desert into a street-cuisine paradise — but not before the government tried to ban them altogether.

Yes, New York has issues with shady landlords turning residential buildings into hotels. But prohibiting responsible tenants from renting out their apartments isn’t a solution. In fact, it shuts down a solution to an entirely different problem: The problem of how to give people who can’t afford the city’s expensive hotels a way to visit. It’s an informal solution, and elegant in its simplicity — there are empty apartments in this city on any given night, and there are people who are willing to pay to sleep in them. An array of new websites provides the links between the supply and demand, and voila! It’s an innovation the city should find ways to cultivate, rather than mindlessly sever.