Clintons’ October Permitting Surprise

hand-stop-sign quoted me in Final October Surprise: Clintons Make Untimely Mistake Renovating Their New Home. It opens,

This is proving to be the year that redefines the notion of the presidential campaigns’ “October Surprise.” First Donald Trump‘s hot mic/hot mess “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced, followed by the ugly after affects. Then with just over a week to go before Election Day, Hillary Clinton‘s email woes returned, this time on Anthony Weiner‘s computer. Talk about lousy timing! Now, on the final day of October, one last surprise is rearing its head. Remember when the Clintons bought the home next door to their own in Chappaqua, NY, a few months back? Well, it turns out they renovated it without permits.

Breaking news alert!

According to public records, government officials received a complaint in early October about excavation happening at the Clintons’ new home. When an inspector arrived, he saw that a number of unpermitted upgrades were taking place, including a kitchen remodel and the installation of a new HVAC system.

Conspiracy theorists take note: Once the Clintons learned of this oversight, they took steps to fix it. And to be fair, the inspector on the case, William Maskiell, concedes that architects or contractors typically file for permits rather than the homeowners themselves. Still, he points out, “If you own the house, you’re responsible on everything that goes on with that house.”

In other words, the buck stops with the Clintons.

Granted, this blooper might seem small compared with the much larger problems on Hillary Clinton’s plate right now. Still, it can serve as an important lesson to all homeowners—many of whom might be tempted to sneakily sidestep those annoying permits before they start renovating. Honestly, are those little pieces of paperwork all that important?

It turns out they really are.

“I can’t believe a contractor working on a multimillion-dollar home wouldn’t pull permits,” says Mark Clements, a contractor at “It’s very much the contractor’s responsibility to gain those permits, and nearly unthinkably stupid not to.”

Here’s why: “On the surface, permits are inconvenient, but their value vastly outweighs what it takes to obtain them,” Clements explains. “They ensure everything from zoning variances to proper building practices are followed. And they make sure there is another set of expert eyes on the work being done, checking for everything from proper structure to code-approved electric to fire stops are safely installed.”

Once that’s done, a final inspection and certificate of occupancy, or “C of O,” is issued. The home may be reappraised—which could raise property taxes—”but it will also mean that when you list it for sale with three bathrooms, you can do so legally,” Clements adds.

A Stronger America, One Permit At A Time

So what’s the worst that could happen if you don’t bother with permits before you embark on a home improvement project? For one, if you’re caught, you could face fines.

“In some jurisdictions the penalties can be heavy, but it’s the stop-work order than can really hurt,” says David Reiss, a professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School and editor of “Not only does it delay the completion of the work, but it may lead to additional costs from the contractor and subcontractors working on the project. And to top it off, it may interfere with the homeowners’ plans to leave their current home and move into their new one. The cascade effect among the affected parties can be painful.”

And even if you’ve already completed your renovation off the radar, you aren’t in the clear. If you decide to sell your home one day, unpermitted renovations can discourage buyers from biting—if they’re discovered.

“When buying a home, you always want to pay attention to any signs that there was unpermitted work done on the house,” says Reiss. “Is the certificate of occupancy for a one-family home, but there is a mother-in-law unit in the back? Are all of the houses on the block one story but your house is two stories? In such cases, you definitely want to dig a little deeper so you are not left holding the bag.”

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Hillary’s Housing Agenda

United States Department of State

Hillary Clinton’s housing policy platform is included in her Breaking Every Barrier Agenda. I quote the key passages below and provide my two cents on them. Overall, the proposals strike me as reasonable, progressive ones.

  • Support families as they save for sustainable homeownership. Clinton will support initiatives to match up to $10,000 in savings for a down payment for those who earn less than area median income.

I like that this down payment assistance proposal because it requires that homebuyers have skin in the game (and $10,000 is a lot of skin for many first-time homebuyers). Down payment assistance programs that do not require skin in the game can turn out to be unmitigated fiascoes for homebuyers and government programs alike (for instance, see my discussion of the American Dream Down Payment Act of 2003 here).

  • Easing local barriers. Clinton will encourage communities to implement land use strategies that make it easier to build affordable rental housing near good jobs by increasing funding available to those that do through both her infrastructure bank and competitive grant programs, like the Department of Transportation’s TIGER initiative.
  • Build more affordable rental housing near good jobs and good schools. Clinton will increase support for affordable rental housing in the areas that need it most and encourage communities to implement land use strategies that make it easier to build affordable rental housing near good jobs.

I like these proposals because they acknowledges the outsized effect that local land use policies can have on housing construction. The federal government can use its considerable set of incentives to push local governments to allow for housing where it is needed.

  • Overcome pockets of distress. Clinton will provide the resources necessary to overcome blight, giving communities a chance to rebuild and renew with new businesses, new homeowners, and new hope. And she will connect housing support in high-poverty neighborhoods to economic opportunity.

I am not sure if this proposal is specific enough to respond to, but I am concerned that it does not account for the fact that some communities are blighted because the local economy has failed. Decisions to address blight must be made without sentimentality or we will just be throwing good money after bad.

  • Connecting housing assistance to community development. Clinton will build on the Choice Neighborhoods and Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative programs, both of which provide communities with support for housing as part of a multifaceted strategy to address the complex challenges of poverty. She will make resources available for economic development, health care, environmental improvement, and more.

Housing policy is clearly just one aspect of social policy, so it makes sense for Clinton to treat it as one thread in a broader fabric. This proposal is also a little short on details, so it is hard to see what she is intending to do, other than continuing current Obama policies.

  • Giving recipients of assistance more choice. Clinton will work to expand the choices that recipients of housing vouchers have in deciding where to live. Today those with vouchers must often choose among the very pockets of poverty the vouchers are intended to allow them to leave. Clinton believe we should expand their range of options to include neighborhoods with more jobs and better schools.

I am a big fan of giving low- and moderate-income households more choice when it comes to their housing options, so I think it is great that Clinton wants to expand the voucher program.

  • Support counseling programs for the significant financial commitment of homeownership. Clinton will increase funding and broaden credit terms for housing counseling programs shown to help borrowers become sustainable homeowners.

I am not sure that the evidence is there that homeownership counseling works, so I would caution the Clinton campaign to look at the research on this topic.

  • Enforce fair housing and fair lending laws. Clinton will make sure that the Department of Justice enforces fair lending and fair housing laws and will work closely with regulators to make sure that Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the nation’s lenders meet their responsibility to provide lending in communities that have been historically underserved.

No question, fair housing and fair lending enforcement should be a priority for the DoJ. I would like more details about Clinton’s expectations for Fannie and Freddie though. It is important that any policies implemented through Fannie and Freddie are designed to encourage sustainable homeownership, not just homeownership that can end up being a part of a cycle of purchase and default.

  • Reducing the cost. Clinton will defend the current supply of Low Income Housing Tax Credits and provide additional credits in communities where the demand for these credits far exceeds the supply. The additional credits will be allocated through a competitive process to those cities and states that are in the best position to use them effectively.

The Low Income Housing Tax Credit has bipartisan support as an engine of housing construction for low-income households, so it seems reasonable that Clinton would want to expand it in the current political environment.

*     *     *

I will review the other candidate’s housing platforms in the coming weeks.