By Alan Anderson
The present discussion of the use of eminent domain by the city commission has centered on whether to use this power beyond that for such public purposes as roads, parks, and buildings. This debate needs to take special account of the interests of the citizens most directly affected.
These interests were expressed in the amicus brief submitted in the recent Supreme Court case by a number of groups including the AARP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Hispanic Alliance of Atlantic County.
This brief makes three points: first, that the power of eminent domain historically has been used to target racial and ethnic minorities; second, that takings of property for economic development will disproportionately affect neighborhoods with high concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities and the elderly; and third, that the economic impact of eminent domain on these groups is greater, even different in kind, from its impact on other groups, in part because of the difficulty of these groups in finding adequate replacement housing.
The brief provides extensive documentation for each of these points. According to one report, “between 1949 and 1963, sixty-three percent of all the families displaced by urban renewal were non-white.” In 2004 another scholar estimated that 1,600 African-American neighborhoods had been destroyed by the use of eminent domain to build highways and housing projects.
These concerns are particularly relevant here in Bowling Green, where the city wiped out one African American neighborhood, Jonesville, for the sake of a new WKU football stadium; reduced another black neighborhood, Shake Rag, to half its former size in order to build The Medical Center; and now threatens all but a few blocks of the remainder in the name of downtown redevelopment. The effect of each of these actions has been to reduce the number of affordable housing units in Bowling Green.
The city commission may have left the door open to the broader use of eminent domain in downtown development by the phrase they included in the first reading of the ordinance, “public works.” Surely the redevelopment of a “blighted area” qualifies as a “public work.” Under Kentucky law, eminent domain may be used to clear and redevelop blighted areas. Economic development as a means of removing blight distinguishes our situation from that addressed by the Supreme Court where economic development as an end was the issue.
Therefore, while I personally favor the broader use of eminent domain in downtown redevelopment because I think it is good for the citizens of Bowling Green as a whole, my support comes with a big if – if, and only if, the interests of the present residents of the Downtown Redevelopment District are most strongly protected.
Our religious and political traditions have always affirmed, even favored, the rights of our minorities. Now, and especially in light of our past history, our city commission has the opportunity to go the extra mile in respecting the property rights and interests of minorities and the elderly when they conflict with the city’s public interest.
The city can do this in two ways. First and most immediately, the city should exercise its eminent domain powers only in the most judicious, limited and generous manner.
Second and in the long term, the city should make a major commitment to increase the supply of affordable housing in Bowling Green. Mayor Elaine Walker’s recent efforts to facilitate the purchase of affordable housing are most commendable.
But the more basic problem is the supply of affordable housing. People cannot purchase housing units that do not exist. By the city’s own estimate, we are some 4,000 units short in meeting the demand for affordable housing. The result is that poorer families among us pay 40 percent and 50 percent of their household budgets for housing that it is frequently, at best, marginally livable. Minority, ethnic and elderly households are overrepresented in this group.
I have addressed this issue publicly and proposed solutions for it. I will not repeat that discussion here. Those who are interested will find it in the “Public Presentations” section of the Community Research Service home page at:
Bowling Green Daily News: www.bgdailynews.com
Dr. Alan Anderson is professor and former head of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Western Kentucky University. A participant in the civil rights movement, he worked with Dr. King in Albany, Ga., and Chicago and is coauthor of the prize-winning “Confronting the Color Line: The Broken Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago.” The Community Research Service publishes his students’ papers on social ethical issues in the metropolitan development of Bowling Green and Warren County.