Ella Burnham, 74, has her photo on page one of The Seattle Times Wednesday, hanging out her laundry on a clothesline. Air-drying laundry has become a political issue, because homeowner associations (and the Seattle Housing Authority) ban it as “unsightly” and (this is unsaid) low-class. The Seattle Housing Authority gamely argues that clothesline are a “safety issue,” because people leaning out of their windows might fall out, but the agency bans clotheslines at ground level, too.
I’m for liberty. To me these bans are obnoxious because they represent unnecessary social control over individual behavior. Which is a fancy way of saying that the people who complain are busybodies, and that the “unsightliness” of a clothesline on somebody else’s property is none of their business. Which is one reason why I live on a city street and not under the dictates of some underwear-in-a-knot homeowner association.
I remember this issue coming up about campaign signs. Some homeowner put up a sign and his homeowner association demanded that it come down. The homeowner said he had a First Amendment right to political expression, and the homeowner association said he’d signed it away when he’d bought his house and agreed to the covenants. The issue turned on whether covenants like that violated public policy.
I generally defend the right of contract. But banning political signs rubs me the wrong way. It’s un-American. So is a ban on clotheslines. I grew up with a clothesline. My mother used one. I remember the smell of air-dried sheets. Banning clotheslines is not a matter of “safety.” It’s enforcing a class prejudice.
The public-policy argument for clotheslines is that they save energy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, making them a public good. It’s not the argument that stirs me most, but it’s a good one. The environmentalists point out that these well-off people spend thousands of dollars on hybrid and electric cars in order to save energy and help the environment, and turn around and ban clotheslines. The enviros are right.