Eminent domain, by any other name . . . still stinks

Christina Walsh Director of Activism and Coalitions, Institute for Justice
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Imagine you come home from work one day to a notice on your front door that you have 45 days to demolish your house, or the city will do it for you.  Oh, and you’re paying for it.

This is happening right now in Montgomery, Ala., and here is how it works: The city decides it doesn’t like your property for one reason or another, so it declares it a “public nuisance.”  It mails you a notice that you have 45 days to demolish your property, at your expense, or the city will do it for you (and, of course, bill you).

Your tab with the city will constitute a lien on your property, and if you don’t pay it within 30 days (or pay your installments on time; if you owe over $10,000, you can work out a deal to pay back the city for destroying your home over a period of time, with interest), the city can sell your now-vacant land to the highest bidder.

Alabama law empowers municipalities to do just this.  Officials can demolish structures that they determine, “due to poor design, obsolescence, or neglect, have become unsafe to the extent of becoming public nuisances…and [are] causing or may cause a blight or blighting influence on the city and the neighborhoods in which [they are] located.”  Keep in mind, so-called standards like “obsolescence” are so vague they can mean anything, so even a well-maintained home that government officials don’t like the look of can be fed to the bulldozers.

While this may sound like eminent domain for private gain, it’s not.  This is a completely different section of Alabama’s code that the city of Montgomery is now abusing habitually to tear down homes it does not like in a predominantly African American community — once home to Rosa Parks.

Jim Peera, who fought the city for years to keep a property he was rehabilitating himself — the kind of entrepreneurial private redevelopment that should be encouraged, especially in this economy — obtained copies of demolition records that indicate hundreds of homes and properties have been demolished over the past five years in Montgomery.  Some may have posed an immediate threat to public health and safety — but that was certainly not the case with all of them.

Consider Jimmy McCall.  Jimmy was in the process of building from the ground-up a home for his family when he was notified it was slated for demolition.  After one failed attempt to bulldoze the half-completed home, the city came back under this state law and got what they were fighting for: Jimmy’s would-be dream home was demolished, and he was stuck with the bill.

How could building a home be considered a public nuisance, and not economic development — which is ultimately the goal of the city’s efforts?

In the wake of Kelo v. City of New London (the disastrous U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared the mere promise of increased tax revenue or jobs justifies condemning someone’s home), Alabama passed two laws that significantly tightened the state’s eminent domain law.  Private property can’t be condemned for private development, and individual properties must actually be truly unsafe or neglected.  It is largely impossible to use eminent domain for private gain now in Alabama, and the Institute for Justice, which tracks such reforms nationwide, gave the state a high grade of B+ for its efforts.

The end game in Montgomery, however, is obvious.  The city wants to clear and ultimately sell-off the property of lower-income, mostly black Alabamans to higher-income developers, but it can’t do that through the state’s eminent domain law.  So it found a backdoor, which also incidentally does not require the city to compensate property owners for their loss, but instead charges them.

Montgomery has been a battleground for civil rights since Rosa Parks stood up to the powers that be more than 50 years ago and demanded the freedoms guaranteed by our forefathers — in the same place property owners today demand the right to keep what is rightfully theirs.

This Saturday, August 28, 2010, the Institute for Justice (IJ) will hold a workshop in Montgomery to train property owners on how to fight these abuses of their rights.  IJ holds these workshops nationwide to empower grassroots activists with the knowledge that they are right, that they do have rights and they can fight back and defeat even the most entrenched, powerful, well-funded interests — in this case, the government itself.

We will discuss how Montgomery residents can fight back and stop these demolitions, with the principle and conviction of a woman who refused to get up from a bus seat that she knew was hers five decades ago.

We encourage you to let your friends and colleagues in the Montgomery area know about our event.  You can find more details here: http://iam.ij.org/cq2LM0.

Christina Walsh is the Director of Activism and Coalitions for the Institute for Justice, which is based in Arlington, Va.