Passport blues

I have procrastinated for months in getting a new passport, even after my old one expired at the end of June, because the cover came off and it therefore counts as too damaged for a postal renewal. So, I finally found my birth certificate and biked over from my nice new (as of just over a week ago) residence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn down to the very lovely main Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Park, where the most convenient all-day-long passport application center is located.

Upon arrival, I realize I forgot my printout of the application form at home, but no matter; I can easily fill it out again. After all, it would be silly to go all the way back home for my neatly printed printout of the filled-out-online PDF version of the form. And so I fill out all the forms again, whereupon the agent checks my documentation, She is at first suspicious that my birth certificate is merely a photocopy, and therefore invalid, but I show her—no ma’am, you can see that there is a faint, but genuine raised seal upon the surface—and she acquiesces.

But then a curveball. I am told that because my state ID1 is less than 6 months old, the State Department does not have the updated records and it is therefore not a complete and valid form of identification, necessitating an alternate and more comprehensive approach to the application process. My options are laid out: I need to either go home and find the expired ID card or make an affidavit application.

What is an affidavit passport application you ask? I have heard of affidavit voting, you may think. All you have to do is fill out one extra form attesting that you are not a lying scoundrel, and they will put your vote in the pile that they will look at if they get bored. Surely an affidavit passport application is no more of a burden? In fact, it is.For you see, it is not the applicant who completes the affidavit, but the witness attesting to the applicant’s identity. That is, I would need to bring a relative or long-standing acquaintance with me to the application office, this person would need to present his or her identification, and sign an affidavit swearing to be a relative or long-standing acquaintance of mine, whereupon my application would be accepted.

Having no desire to subject another individual to such a dreary procedure, I cycle back home, stopping only shop at the Duane Reade for sundries I have been delinquent in purchasing, and being a frantic search for the expired card. Having just moved over a week ago I expected the search to be fruitless, but luckily I discovered the card in a matter of minutes, on a table, unexpectedly laying underneath a hat.

And so, the story ends with far more annoyance than drama, yet another example of the seemingly endless procedures to which all we citizens are subjected by the splendiferously tentacled bureaucratic state, and an anecdote which I hope will prove to be of some small amount of education to the reader.

  1. Non-driver’s license state ID. Yes, that is something I never did at all. []

Renting in Japan vs America: Interlude on discrimination

In my post on how renting works in America I included the following paragraph.

I should also add that exclusion by race or nationality is highly illegal, to the point where realtors are legally prohibited from even discussing the racial makeup of the neighborhood, should the renter be trying to, for example, avoid living near black people. This is very strictly enforced (at least in some states.) My mother had a good friend who worked as a realtor, who told me that the New Jersey state board of real estate (or whatever the official name is) actually sends undercover inspectors to do random checks of real estate agents and make sure they are following the discrimination guidelines. Realtors who break the rules lose their license.

I should add that despite being highly illegal this kind of discrimination is far from gone.One of my relatives emailed me the following anecdote, which I have edited to anonymize.

I didn’t want to post this in a public place, but just thought it would interest you. Somebody, can’t remember who now, asked [my partner] and I if — in selling our house — we would give preference to someone Jewish. We were amazed that anybody would ask us such a dumb question. First of all, selecting on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity would be illegal, but furthermore, it never entered our minds. So here we are in the 21st century and many people are still mired in the 1950’s — when this truly did happen on Long Island on a regular basis (and probably everywhere in the USA), and was still happening well into the 1980’s (even tho’ illegal).

I grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, which while today has a moderate Jewish population, until a few decades ago reputedly had an unofficial policy of excluding Jews. Montclair has also always had a large black population, but there has certainly been a history of anti-black racial discrimination in the real-estate market. For example, a brief 1909 item in the New York Times states that “The colored residents of this town are agitating a movement to erect a hotel for negroes in Montclair. The leaders of the negroes here say that such an establishment has become a necessity.” Although I have no other information, this certainly suggests to me that the black community has having a difficult time finding permission to construct the hotel, and furthermore, the very idea of a “hotel for negroes” suggests that they were being excluded from the hotels for whites, despite New Jersey being a Northern state, allegedly free of Jim Crow type discrimination.

Accusations of real-estate related racism today, however, allege a far more subtle manner. In the case of anti-black racism, there has been criticism of such things as the gentrification of neighborhoods in the South End of town, historically where the less wealthy blacks in Montclair have lived, near the train stations whose desirability has increased following rail service upgrades.

As for antisemitism, there was the case of B’nai Keshet, the Reconstructionist (which basically means leaning more towards culture than religion) synagogue that I and my family belonged to until I gave up on religion at age 11. From a 1996 NYT article on the phenomenon of minority religious groups suffering discrimination under the guise of legitimate zoning concerns (they have many other worthy examples in addition to B’nai Keshet):

In Montclair, B’nai Keshet, a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation, ran into tremendous opposition to its plan to move into a former art school. After many contentious hearings, the township ultimately approved the plan. But then the neighbors sued, and incensed synagogue members with comments in the local press likening the group to the cultist Jim Jones, said Susan Green, a past president of the congregation.

I remember this controversy actually going on for years, with B’nai Keshet moving around to a couple of temporary locations before they finally located a building, but I must admit that having quite years earlier, I paid little attention and don’t even remember where they ended up. However, while I may have found them boring, they were about as non-cultish as a religious group can be. A lawyer quoted in the article makes an important point:

”Churches no longer carry the cachet that they once did, that they sweep away for all citizens all opposition, and that’s particularly true when it comes to smaller or less established churches — which means new immigrant groups or smaller denominations,” said Marc Stern, a lawyer with the American Jewish Congress. ”Sometimes it’s flat-out bigotry masquerading as zoning.”

While explicit discrimination in real estate is illegal in the US and there has been much success in eliminating it from the residential real estate market (although I’m sure this varies greatly by region), it persists in more subtle ways, particularly in commercial real estate involving stores or religious/cultural institutions where minority ethnic or religious groups will gather.

Renting in Japan vs America – Part 1

Inspired by the news the other day that a Kyoto district court has rules that housing rental contract renewal fees are a violation of consumer rights, I thought I would write a brief introduction to how renting works, based primarily on my own experiences.

I have rented twice in America, three times in Japan, and one time in Taiwan, with an asterisk. As this post was getting quite long, I’ve decided to split it up into three pieces. Since I want to go in chronological order, I’ll first discuss America with a brief mention of Taiwan, then part 2 will discuss how it works in Japan, and finally in the third part I will break down my actual housing contract as specific examples.

I went to college at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, in the small city of New Brunswick. After two years in various dorms I decided to move out, and went looking for a house or apartment to share with a friend or three. The Rutgers campus is surrounded by a zone of houses (with a very few apartment buildings) which are occupied almost entirely by students renting from year to year, formed as if the city were insulating itself from the campus in much the manner of an oyster generating a pearl to protect its soft, fragile body from a piece of grit. Since houses in the area are almost entirely for students, landlords can advertise directly to them quite easily through the housing office bulletin board etc, so there is no need for anyone to involve real estate agents. In most cases, the owner of the house rents directly to students, and are usually very amateurish about arranging repairs etc. The security deposit is equal to 1.5 months rent, as specified by city ordnance, and must be kept in a special bank account which may be used only to store the security deposit. When first moving in, the only thing you pay are first month rent, last month rent, and the security deposit. There is no “renewal fee” or anything similar, and in ordinary circumstances, most of the security deposit is returned.

This is pretty much the procedure throughout the US. While houses may be rented directly by the owner or through a real estate agent (who I presume earns some sort of fee), one often has contact with the landlord (i.e. the actual owner) after moving in, but owners of multiple properties may hire a company to deal with residents for them. Large apartment buildings generally have a superintendent who manages building, particularly construction, although I am somewhat vague about how small apartment buildings generally work. Security deposit is usually legally restricted to an amount of 1.5 or 2 months rent, and contract renewal fees are illegal. There is one big exception in the case of ‘key money’, which I will discuss later.

I should also add that exclusion by race or nationality is highly illegal, to the point where realtors are legally prohibited from even discussing the racial makeup of the neighborhood, should the renter be trying to, for example, avoid living near black people. This is very strictly enforced (at least in some states.) My mother had a good friend who worked as a realtor, who told me that the New Jersey state board of real estate (or whatever the official name is) actually sends undercover inspectors to do random checks of real estate agents and make sure they are following the discrimination guidelines. Realtors who break the rules lose their license.

I lived in one such house for a year (actually the first story of a two family house, as many houses are in the area), went to Japan for two years, where I lived in school dorms, and then returned for my final year at Rutgers, where I shared a second-story apartment of a different two-family house, which had been arranged while I was away by the girlfriend of a good friend (the girl being Jess Rees and the friend being Brian Cervino, both members of the band Huma whose music I recommend), and another guy that she knew. I’m afraid I forget now exactly what the rent was, but it came out to somewhere between $300 and $400 per person, plus some more for utilities. The security deposit in New Brunswick is set by law at 1.5 months, and in both cases most of it was returned, although well after the 30 day window required by law. As a student with no independent source of income, the landlords also required parents to co-sign as a guarantee. This is common in the US in such situations, but is not usual for renters who actually have a stable job. In both cases, everyone living in the apartment signed the lease, but the room and rent allocation was not explicitly spelled out, which in retrospect might have been a good idea, as there were some minor arguments in that area in the first house (although none at all in the second.)

I next went to study in Taiwan for a few months, where had arranged no housing in advance aside from a one-week reservation in a youth hostel, but almost immediately found a promising room advertised on a bulletin board at school. This experience gets an asterisk because as a subleter I never signed, or even examined, a contract and know relatively little about the local procedures and laws. My general impression, however, is that it works more or less the same as in most of the US, with no ‘key money’ or renewal fees, and only moderate security deposits. It seemed to me that rentals often go through agents (at least in apartment building-dominated Taipei) but perhaps in smaller cities/towns there are more landlords renting directly.

Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow.

Mass transit plea

Having been rather frustrated by the lack of much serious discussion of guiding any of the so-called stimulus money towards investment in much needed mass transit infrastructure upgrades, I decided to compose a letter to my two Senators and one local Representative asking them to work towards this agenda. I’ve attached my text below, and I implore registered USA voters to send a similar letter to their own congressional delegation, and to pass along a request to potentially interested registered voters you know. So few people actually write politicians on these issues that a surprisingly small number of contacts can, on occasion, spur them to take at least a mild stand on an issue. This is the first time in many years that Congress has even considered taking an interest in mass transit/rail investment and we mustn’t let it pass Continue reading Mass transit plea

Old news of Montclair

I decided earlier today to write something about Montclair, the town where I grew up in New Jersey, and spent a few minutes looking through the free NYT archives to see what I could find. That post will be up another day, but here are a few of the amusing articles I turned up.

Goodbye New Jersey?

From the current NYT:

Dr. Chu faces a variety of conflicting mandates. For example, he said that using more renewable energy is a national priority and thus will require a national electric grid. To help create such a grid, a 2005 law gives the department the authority to designate high-priority corridors, to overrule local objections to new power lines. But Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat, complained that the department had designated his entire state, New Jersey, as part of a corridor. Mr. Chu promised to investigate.

Does this mean that our entire state will be paved over? Having all the turnpike jokes come true would be very traumatic.

Protesting in a police state

In July of 2005, when I was living in New Brunswick, NJ, finishing up my studies at Rutgers University, the apartment shared by my friend Ted and his then-wife Janice (they have since divorced for unrelated reasons) in neighboring town Highland Park was raided by a SWAT team of the FBI and New Jersey Joint Terrorism Taskforce, which took a wide variety of their property including any computers or related material, as well as their BBQ. Ted himself was never charged with a crime, and in fact was not even being investigated or targeted, but Janice had been targeted for her animal rights protest activities, which naturally included a lot of relatively harmless shouting at people who did not want to be shouted at, and in places where they did not want outsiders to enter. The actual charges against Janice were, in fact, the real offenses of trespassing and criminal mischief (i.e. spray painting graffiti on the fence of an executive of a company responsible for animal testing), but the police response to these minor offences was grotesquely out of proportion.

Continue reading Protesting in a police state

Pacifist lawsuits: not just for Japan any more

It seems like every few months there’s yet another court ruling as to the constitutionality of Japan’s defense forces. Apparently, Americans are following suit with regard to the Iraq war.

New Jersey Peace Action et al. v. Bush, represented by the Constitutional Law Clinic at Rutgers University Law School-Newark, alleges that the war violates article I, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which assigns to Congress the authority to declare war.

Clinic director Frank Askin said the framers at the 1787 constitutional convention denied war-making powers to the president except in response to sudden attacks when Congress might not have time to react quickly.

“The founders were very clear that only Congress could make that awesome decision,” he said in a statement. “They [members of Congress] were not permitted to delegate that power to the president and thus be able later to disclaim responsibility for a decision gone bad.”

Interesting (but, I suspect, futile) arguments in the full article.

“Super Tuesday”

I just came back from voting in my first presidential primary election. I did vote in both the 2000 and 2004 general elections, but I was living at college an hour away and voted through absentee ballot since I did not want to skip class to come back to my hometown, the only district in which I have ever been registered to vote. But absentee ballots are not available for the primary, and I didn’t even consider skipping class for that (I believe I was also in Japan during the 2004 New Jersey primary).

I have however voted in person before, during a couple of the less significant election years between the presidential race, and I also spent several election days in the polling location at Edgemont Elementary School around the corner from my house when my father held a Democratic party position involved with supervising the polling station during my childhood.

Voting today was nearly the same experience as before. I told the man sitting at the A-K half of the desk my name, signed the blank signature line next to the photocopy of my signature from my voter registration card, and was given a pink voting slip, which I also signed. I had brought my passport along to use as ID, since I did not remember if any documentation is required, but in fact the only verification is a signature check, and knowing your own name and address. I then proceeded to the curtain-encircled voting machine and handed the pink slip to the woman sitting next to it. Her job is to collect each slip, make sure it is properly filled-out, and then pierce it on one of those spiked receipt collector things one often sees next to cash registers and the like. She then presses the button on the rear of the voting machine to prime it for the next voter.

Next, I stepped inside the curtain. This is the point at which there was a slight variation from the old days. I had grown up with the awesome yet clunky great blue mechanical voting machine, which had now been supplanted by electronic ones. There was something viscerally satisfying about actually flipping each little mechanical switch into the correct position before locking and then through the pull of the oversized lever on the right of everything else, transmitting your choices through a series of gears into the hole-puncher in the rear of the machine, encoding your vote onto the long and wide paper feed spooling one line at a time through the apparatus.

Now it is electronic, but thankfully not one of the overcomplicated and eminently hackable touchscreen monstrosities used in many areas. The New Jersey machine, at least the one I used here in Montclair, Essex County, simply has a plastic insert printed with the exact same material as the sample ballot I received in the mail a week or two ago, laid over a series of light-up buttons. When the machine is activated by the attendant, a backlight comes on behind the applicable ballot portion: Republican, Democrat or both depending upon your registered affiliation (both is for people like me who register as unaffiliated). Today is only a primary vote and not a real election, so the sole choice was for choice of presidential nominee. I clicked the Barack Obama button, the names of his four convention delegates to the right, the little red light behind his name came on, and I pressed the finalize button on the bottom right. It took only a couple of seconds, and I was out of there.

But in my heart, voting will never truly feel like democracy to me if you don’t get to pull a big, blue, metal lever at the end.

Update: How did my vote  do? Well, Obama and Clinton are currently looking like they’re tied neck and neck nationwide, Clinton won New Jersey by about 9%, but Obama won my Essex County by around 15%. I believe this means that, since delegates are more or less apportioned  at the county level, the candidate I voted for technically won in the election which my vote directly counted towards.

More apologies

This is already a week old, but did anyone notice that the very same day US Congressman Mike Honda (D, California) issued yet another call for Japan to issue a more concrete apology to former comfort women, New Jersey became the first Northern state in the United States to issue a formal apology for our state’s history of slavery? Although four Southern states of Virginia, Maryland, Alabama, and North Carolina had previously issued similar resolutions, the fact that many Northern states still allowed slave-holding well into the 19th century has been largely ignored. New Jersey, for example, did not finally ban slavery until 1846. There has been no such resolution at the federal level.

While it might be nice to see the Japanese government officially acknowledge past crimes in more specificity, perhaps the US Congress should apologize for slavery at the national level before its members go overseas to demand that foreign governments do the same thing. Maybe by setting a moral example, Mister Honda might convince a wider audience of his credibility.

Oh, and as for the Japanese government’s previous apologies. While they were a good start, they really could be more specific. Take a look at the actual text of last week’s New Jersey slavery apology resolution and think about how they compare.

Update: I feel like I should add that I don’t consider a simple apology in and of itself very worthwhile. The important thing about the New Jersey resolution is not so much that it apologizes, but that it lists both the actual crimes and in historical context and legacy in a decently comprehensive outline, and then also explicitly calls for continuing education on the subject. Let me quote the “statement” at the end of the resolution.

This concurrent resolution issues a formal apology on behalf of the State of New Jersey for its role in slavery and discusses the history of racism and inhumane treatment toward African-Americans in the United States from the arrival of its first settlers to the present day. It calls upon the citizens of this State to remember that slavery continues to exist and encourages them to teach about the history and legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws.

While I think it was sloppy phrasing not to say something like “continues to exist in parts of the world,” resolutions like this are important not because they can make people feel good about their awesomeness in making said apology, but because it can contribute to the education of the populace.