I have received a reply to my op-ed about porch couches from a member of city council. The councilperson writes:
The proposal to ban couches on porches is based on national fire safety standards and tragedies that have occurred at other university towns either with fires on porches or with waterlogged furniture causing collapse of the structure. Couches outdoors also attract vagrants who may find them a nice place to sleep and smoke. These old pieces of upholstered furniture are unsightly and dangerous. It is a lot “cooler” to purchase inexpensive plastic furniture to use on porches.
Here’s my reply:
Thanks for your reply. However, I’m not convinced by the arguments you have made supporting a proposed ban.
First, you allege upholstered furniture on porches can become waterlogged and cause structural collapse. Having lived in two buildings with porches with upholstered furniture, I can attest that they didn’t become more than mildly damp, even in the most wet weather. Also, if they are damp, reason would seem to indicate they would not be much of a fire hazard – if you have ever tried to start a fire with damp firewood, you might be familiar with this phenomenon.
Furthermore, although I have heard of porches collapsing, I believe in general this happens because well-used wood has a usable age after which point it must be replaced. Many of the houses in Ann Arbor are well over fifty years old, and it should be expected that wooden porches constructed with untreated lumber, which may or may not have been properly maintained by the building owners, will occasionally fail. In general however, a structural engineer will tell you that material fails when it experiences a sudden stress – such as when too many people are on the porch, and not when it is passively bearing a load. If you are concerned about collapsing porches, I would suggest instructing the city to inspect the quality and integrity of the wood, not ban furniture you consider “unsightly.”
Second, I am baffled by your argument about “vagrants.” Yes, Ann Arbor has a homeless population, but I’m not sure why couches are any more attractive to these people than patio furniture. I suspect the homeless might be occasionally spotted on upholstered furniture because students are more likely to have couches, and students dominate the rental market in Ann Arbor. In short, “vagrants” as you term them will make use of the porch of any building that goes vacant for part of the year – no matter the quality, type, or price of the furniture on the porch. I say this because I have experienced it first hand as a resident of Arch Street – homeless people would occasionally relax on the porch of a house whose tenants were gone for the summer because they were friends with a student resident who was away. Banning couches would have no effect on this phenomenon, and I have found many lawn chairs much more comfortable for sleeping than a couch. You are correct – Ann Arbor has a population of homeless people. If the city would like to address the problem of homelessness,
it could expand the size of the homeless shelter, invest in other
housing and education programs.
Third, although you might find the furniture “unsightly,” in general I don’t think it’s a good idea to legislate aesthetic taste. Living in a large city means many people will dress, live, and act in ways you might consider ugly, offensive, and in poor taste. If you can prove that upholstered furniture is truly dangerous the law might make some sense, however I remain skeptical.
I have two other related thoughts on the matter:
First, although I read the Ann Arbor News daily and am a member of a high-profile city task force, I heard very little about this proposed ordinance. Although it might not be on the city council agenda, many people (namely city council members and local landlords) are acting as if it is already the law. A fundamental principal of democracy is that the governed have the right to know about the creation of laws which will govern them. My inquiries have been replied with brusque, defensive replies. I don’t believe it’s overly nieve or idealistic to believe that before passing a law which will effect thousands of students, the city council should make some effort to seek the input of the students – and as far as I know, they have not done this.
Second, it’s fairly commonly known that city government leaders make an effort to pass ordinances which students might not be in favor of when most of the student population is either not in town, or not closely following current events. This is a fundamentally callow and undemocratic move for which they should be ashamed. Good government means involving your constituents in making decisions and setting priorities, not acting secretly when you believe few are looking.