Clothesline Contention and the Tragedy of the Private


September 26, 2007


Browse in Climate Change

It is a weird alchemy of a commodity culture that it turns the normal and sensible into the eccentric and suspect.  Natural food becomes a cultish attachment rather than a redundancy.  Walking instead of driving becomes a sign of questionable political inclination.  A desire to conserve rather than waste becomes “political correctness.”  Then there’s clotheslines, which have emerged as sources of contention in suburbs throughout the nation.

Clotheslines are the best way to dry clothes, absolutely and without question.  Clothes last longer and smell better; and the sun is clean and free. The consequences for the use of fossil fuels are larger than you might think. Some 5% to 10% of the residential energy use in the U.S. goes to washing and drying clothes, and most of that is in the drying.   Wash with cold water and you save 85% on that side.  Hang the clothes on the line and you cut 100% of the electricity or gas use on the other.

If all Americans did both they could save the British-thermal-unit equivalent of at least a third of the oil in the Artic Wildlife Refuge – and a lot of lives in Iraq too.  This is for something that just a few generations ago was considered as normal as brushing teeth, and still is for much of the world today. Not that long ago, umbrella-style clotheslines were fixtures in suburban backyards. Alice Kramden almost surely hung her wash on a line connected to the next apartment building, and reeled it in from her Brooklyn window with a pulley.

Today,  however, such clotheslines are considered blight.  A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (September 18, 2007, p.1) reports on how neighborhood associations are cracking down on residents who dare to use the sun to dry their clothes. A typical quote came from a neighbor of one of the offenders.  “This bombards the senses,” said one Joan Grundeman, an interior designer in Bend, Oregon.  “It can’t possibly increase property values and make people think this is a nice neighborhood.”

At least some people have their priorities straight.  Better to bombard Iran and Iraq and keep the laundry out of sight where it belongs.  The problem here is not officious bureaucrats standing in the way of a sensible citizenry.  It isn’t government at all. It’s the opposite — private homeowner associations that run their own affairs. These associations are a free-marketeers ideal.  The homeowner-members join voluntarily.  Their relationship is contractual, and based on an agreement that they sign.

John Locke could have designed the system.  Only property owners get to vote.  No tragedy of the commons here.  Yet instead there is a tragedy of the private – a myopic concern for property values and aesthetics that over-rides common sense and the survival of humanity itself.  It’s also costing people money.  The typical American household spends $80.00 a year to run a standard electric dryer, the Journal reports.  So restrictions on clotheslines cost residents close to that amount.

This is one tax the political Right will not be bellyaching about on its next “Tax Freedom Day.”  It affects potentially a lot of people.   About sixty million Americans – a little under one in four – live in what are called “association-governed” communities, the Journal says, and most of them restrict outdoor laundry.  I can speak from experience on this.  We rent a house in a small development in a coastal town north of San Francisco; and when we first moved out here from D.C. I hung a clothesline in the yard.  It was a great satisfaction to think of the electricity I wasn’t using and the coal or gas that wasn’t getting burned as a result.  I felt like a dummy for having used dryers for so many years, when the sun was up there offering its services for free.

Then I got a call from the head of the homeowners association.  Someone in the neighborhood had complained about the tee shirts and dungarees hanging from the line.  According to the by-laws of the association I’d have to stop.  Fortunately there’s a semi-hidden corner of the yard that I could use instead.  But in many situations that’s not the case.  I can accept a requirement to be as unobtrusive as possible.  But a requirement for expensive fences is going too far; and some associations prohibit those anyway.

It is states, and not private property owner associations, that are starting to show good sense.  Ten states, including Nevada and Wisconsin, now limit the ability of those associations to restrict the use of solar energy systems.  Whether passive solar devices such as clotheslines fall under that protection generally is unclear though. Only Florida and Utah include clotheslines specifically.

That the Sunshine State actually protects the use of sunshine is at least a start.   To ban the use of clotheslines is a little like banning the drinking of tap water and requiring people to buy bottled water instead.  Myself, I thought the laundry had a happy festive quality, almost like a row of banners flapping in the breeze.  People can disagree on the aesthetics.  But is anyone going to argue that it is better to sic oil derricks on the Alaska wilderness, and engender more turmoil in Iraq?  If so, what comes after that?