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Carter: Income Inequality

Now that the issue of income inequality is front and center on the national political stage, it would be easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that our own local laws and policies do not contribute to income inequality. And it’s true that Vermont's economic metrics look good on some levels, but my own experiences as an attorney in Burlington lead me to wonder just how economically just our laws really are.I recently worked on a case that pitted a Burlington Hostel against zoning ordinances. The city argued that while the Hostel was zoned to allow for paying guests, it was prohibited from welcoming non-paying homeless families during the cold of winter. Ultimately, the Hostel was successful on appeal but by that time, it was no longer possible to house the homeless families that winter.

It’s easy to see how such an ordinance can reinforce the growing sentiment that some laws actually harm middle class families – and therefore increase income inequality. Meanwhile, other zoning laws were quickly amended to allow for development of more expensive, single-family homes on the 32 acres of land formerly owned by Burlington College - all in the name of affordable housing.

Another legal restriction I find troubling is Burlington's Church Street No Trespass Ordinance - a regulation that gives law enforcement the power to summarily banish citizens from Church Street for up to a year. A Public Records request revealed that the vast majority of people banned through this ordinance were either homeless or had mental health issues – certainly some of the most vulnerable among us.

In the context of income inequality, this one is especially striking because the stated purpose for its passage was to increase tourism revenues for marketplace merchants – on the apparent assumption that pan-handling is unattractive to visitors. And policies like this can have an adverse effect on our natural impulse to be charitable. On a recent walk up Church Street I saw at least two signs urging people not to give loose change to the homeless and hungry.

As I prepare to teach a class on political lawyering and income inequality this year, examples like these persuade me that we can't pretend laws and policies leading to income inequality are only to be found in other states and cities.

Maybe the best way to respond to the issue of income inequality raised by the presidential campaigns is to take a hard look in the mirror and seriously consider how we may be contributing to the problem ourselves - right here at home.