Maximum utility

Back when I first arrived in Oxford I remarked on the peculiar repurposing of utility bills as the indispensable proof of address. That is, the banks were enjoined by law from opening an account without proof of address (except Lloyds, which didn’t care for some reason, and so won our custom and our loyalty — until they lost the latter by refusing to consider us for a mortgage on account of my irresponsible decision to be a foreigner), and they seemed to consider proof of address to be equivalent to providing a utility bill. This seems strange for many reasons. First, utility companies are private entities that have designed their bills for, well, billing purposes, not as secure identity cards. The security measures on my water bill are pretty negligible. They have made no effort to check whether the person residing at this address is the same person who is paying the bill, or that either of them has the name on their records. Second, not every legitimate resident has utility bills. In particular, people who have just moved house don’t have utility bills for quite some time.

This requirement is usually attributed to a money-laundering statute. Is there a money-laundering scam that depends on faking a residential address? By criminals who are incapable of faking the address on a water bill? But who would be able to fake a lease, letter from an employer, or any other means of proving identity?

Anyway, I raise this issue now because I find the same peculiar obsession has taken hold in Berkeley. We are going to be spending an extended time in Berkeley, and are naturally interested in our daughter attending the Berkeley public schools. According to the schools web site, enrollment in the Berkeley public schools is possible only with three proofs of residency, the first of which must be a utility bill. Well, that’s what they say. Since we are renting a house in Berkeley with all utilities included, I emailed the Berkeley public schools admissions office to ask whether there is some alternative educational opportunity provided for children who reside in Berkeley but who are ineligible to attend the public schools there (because their parents are creepy people who don’t pay utilities). They told me that they would, of course, accept three other proofs of residency from the list of other accepted proofs of residency (despite the fact that the rules are specifically worded to require a utility bill). That list is (in full):

  1. California Driver’s License or California ID
  2. Current bank statement
  3. Action letter from Social Services
  4. A paycheck stub a letter from the employer on official company letterhead (sic: I presume this means “paycheck stub OR a letter”, but really, who knows? One hopes they hold children’s writing to a higher standard than their own…)
  5. Additional utility bill

Explicitly excluded from this list are leases, evidence of house purchase, as well as testimonies from someone other than an employer, court orders, nocturnal surveillance photos…

Let’s go through the list. If you don’t pay utilities you need three out of the first four. Probably not many people have 3 and 4 both, though I’m not entirely sure what comes under the euphemistic rubric of “Social Services”; in extremis you could pretend to beat your child in public in order to make yourself eligible for a letter, and they’ll probably come visit you at home, making the document particularly valuable. There are some perverse individuals who have neither an employer nor require action from Social Services: Writers, artists, entrepreneurs, drug dealers, visiting professors (or does it need to be a local employer? they don’t say), and other assorted riffraff. I guess, if you’re not employed or on the dole you might as well be home-schooling. And letterheads are just that hard to fake. Do many employers check on whether people are actually living at the address they state, or whether it’s just a relative or a friend forwarding the mail? (I suppose that if people were living in 1950s sit-coms, the boss would come for dinner now and again, instigating mayhem and hijinks, as well as certifying the address.)

Let’s suppose we get the letter from an “employer”. My bank statements for my US account are currently being sent to my parents’ address in Florida. Their value as proof of address is pretty close to nil. Here’s where it gets really weird: According to the California DMV website (and my experience 10 years ago), while they do put your address on your state ID or driving license, they don’t actually request any proof that that is your address. So they will not allow your child to attend school until you queue up at the DMV to get an ID card as proof of residency, although the card actually requires no evidence of the address you have asserted. Actually, they don’t even need the card. The card is mailed up to 60 days after you apply, and on further inquiry they graciously agreed that my child would not be excluded from school for two months while waiting for the card; merely providing the receipt to show that I have applied would suffice. It’s hard to see this as anything but an attempt to intimidate and demean, in the hopes that people who have more resources and don’t like being chivvied will move their children into private education, thus saving money for the city.

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