If you own a home in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, it’s debatable whether you own the steps out front.
Those steps, bridging private residences with public sidewalks, are the subject of a lawsuit between wealthy homeowners and the city that was ruled on last week — and not in the homeowners favor. The plaintiffs, some of whom bought their homes for as much as $2.4 million starting in 2008, say they are being charged around $1,000 per year by the city just to use their stairs, according to the New York Post.
“It’s one of those weird, bureaucratic things that doesn’t make sense,’’ resident Luke Gunnell, who reportedly pays $1,154 annually for his stoop, told the paper.
Those fees come from an agreement between the homes’ builder and the city, allowing stairways to extend several inches beyond the property line, the Post reports. Because they technically cross into public space, residents pay an annual tax to the Department of Transportation. Because the agreement is part of what’s term a “revocable consent agreement,” the city could technically tear out the steps whenever it chooses.
The group originally sued the city in 2015. Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Joan Lobis ruled on the issue last week, stating that the city “acted within its discretion.”
“The city enters into hundreds of these ‘revocable consent’ agreements to facilitate the construction of housing,” a city rep told the Post. “Over the last several decades, the city has revoked less than a handful.’’
Strange as the whole issue may seem, the borders of public street-space — and the ways they bump into private “homespace” — aren’t always well defined in cities. For example, Atlanta’s notoriously patchy network of sidewalks stems partly from old city codes that are unclear whether the property owner or the city is supposed to install and maintain public walkways. In Iowa, the question of public space came to a head when police charged a woman for public intoxication — on her front porch. According to the state’s Supreme Court ruling, the front porch is private, not public space, and so it’s legal to be drunk there.
There is some precedent to the idea that homeowners chip in to support public infrastructure near their homes. But paying $1,000 for a stairwell? In Iowa, that would go a long way at the local liquor store.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.