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City’s Residency Rules a Sign of Desperation

By Laurence D. Cohen

July 25, 2011

The rhetorical gamesmanship, the message massaging, the political posturing used to justify residency requirements for municipal workers is often more exhausting than the jobs being done by the workers.

The embarrassment is most acute in basket-case urban centers where the escape of the middle class from the city taxman and lousy public schools is most acute.

For these shaky metropolitan enterprises to require employees to live within the city limits smacks of desperation, rather than sophisticated Human Resources policy planning. The mandate to pretend to want to live in the urban Garden of Eden is somewhat akin to going on a blind date with the ugly girl that your mom fixed you up with. You smile, but it wasn’t your idea.

From a hard-nosed, business point of view, the “conditions of employment” are decided by the boss, not the cannon fodder — and if the boss wants you to live within spitting distance of the company cafeteria, so be it.

Of course, on the municipal side, the workers are often protected by constipated union work rules that may or may not restrict the boss from deciding what return address you can write on your envelopes.

The best targets for residency requirements among city employees tend to be public safety types. The cops and firemen can often be bludgeoned into living within the city limits, chanting the mantra, “public health and safety.” In case of emergency, you don’t want your cops to be a long-distance phone call away.

In decades past, when housing discrimination was less frowned upon, many cities had vast swatches of residential neighborhoods devoted almost exclusively to white cops and firemen — required to live in the city, but unwilling to consort with the snobby downtown types or their black and brown brothers and sisters.

Many state legislatures (including Connecticut’s General Assembly) have issued blanket prohibitions on residency requirements for the worker bees, with residency obligations limited to the administrative/executive types — who are often allowed to ignore the requirement, with a wink and a nod, or a fake “local” address.

Quite aside from the philosophical matter of whether folks should be required to live in places not of their choosing, as a matter of law, the nation’s courts have been all over the place on the matter of residency requirements.

A “rational basis” test used by some courts obligates the community to justify the residency rules based on something more substantial than the joy of forcing middle-class folks to settle down and mow urban lawns. In union-nutty jurisdictions, the residency requirements have on occasion been labeled an unfair labor practice, subject to contract negotiation.

One amusing legal option has been to slap down the residency requirement as an unconstitutional obstacle to interstate commerce, if some of the bedraggled workers live across a state border and don’t want to move.

The Hartford City Council has roused itself to require enforcement of a six-month residency deadline for newly hired managers and department heads and other folks who don’t perspire on the job.

In a place such as Hartford, at this moment in time, the new-found enthusiasm for dragging the new hires, kicking and screaming, into the city, is particularly awkward.

The commercial real estate market is lousy, the residential is mediocre, with condos being flipped to apartment status — and little sign that any but a few heavy-drinking downtown-loving professionals are lined up to take up permanent residence.

In such a tiny geographic jurisdiction, where a “suburban” resident can live 5 or 10 or 15 minutes from Hartford City Hall, the residency requirement looks to be what it is: embarrassment and desperation.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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