By Carolyn Lochhead
Rep. Maxine Waters, a Los Angeles Democrat, warned Tuesday against using government's power of eminent domain to redevelop New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina concentrated its devastation on largely poor African American neighborhoods.
"We have to watch the redevelopment in New Orleans for a lot of reasons, and one of them is to make sure that the shadow government of the rich and the powerful does not end up abusing eminent domain to take property that belongs to poor people in order to get them out of the city," Waters said.
Waters' comments came after the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on legislation to cut off federal funding for cities that use eminent domain to condemn private property for economic redevelopment, including such private uses as shopping malls, hotels and condominiums.
Congress is searching for ways to blunt the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in June in Kelo vs. New London, Conn., which held that governments can condemn private property if the project serves a "public purpose."
The decision created a public uproar and a rare alliance of conservative and liberal lawmakers, many of them minorities, concerned about government incursions on private property.
They want to roll back what they consider a misreading of the Constitution's Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the taking of "private property for public use without just compensation."
Traditionally, public use has meant condemning land for public schools or highways, but in recent decades has expanded to include clearing "blighted" neighborhoods or redeveloping commercial areas.
Two downtown Oakland property owners, John Revelli, who owned a tire shop that had been in business since his father opened it in 1949, and his neighbor Tony Fung, owner of Autohouse, were forced by the city of Oakland to vacate their properties July 1, days after the June 23 Kelo decision, to make way for a city-subsidized apartment complex.
"We had one week to move all our equipment and vacate our property," which is prime commercial real estate a block from the 19th Street BART Station, Revelli said. "It was a horrible day. I wouldn't want anyone else to go through this."
Since the 1950s, African American communities have been targeted for "urban renewal" projects so many times that the redevelopment efforts came to be known as "black removal," said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the Washington office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Minority and poor communities are affected more often by eminent domain and have less ability to fight back politically or legally, Shelton said. The recent Supreme Court decision "to allow the government or its designee to take property simply by asserting that it can put the property to a higher use will systematically sanction transfers from those with less resources to those with more," Shelton said.
Jose Mendoza, owner of San Jose Men's Wear in the Tropicana Shopping Center in East San Jose that is made up of Latino and Asian businesses, said he won an eminent domain case in 2003 against the city's redevelopment agency, which wanted to build a new shopping center on the site. Mendoza said he had already lost two properties, one in Salinas and one in downtown San Jose, through condemnation.
"When they came here, I was very, very, very upset," Mendoza, 68, said. "I said not the third time. And we fought until we beat them."
The Judiciary Committee heard testimony on a bill by conservative Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, co-sponsored by liberal California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, that would limit the power of eminent domain "for public use," and ban its use for private economic development.
The bill would apply to the federal government, but also discourage cities and states by blocking federal funds for any private economic redevelopment that uses eminent domain. Many such projects use federal money.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a former mayor of San Francisco, has expressed reservations about the Kelo decision but has not signed on to any bill. There are several other efforts in the Senate and House where Waters has teamed with conservative Republican Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy to limit eminent domain.
"This issue is very dear to my heart," said Waters, who has fought condemnations for years in Los Angeles neighborhoods. "The taking of private property for private use is in my estimation unconstitutional, unAmerican and is not to be tolerated."
Susette Kelo, the nurse who was the lead plaintiff in the now famous case, testified that she bought a waterfront Victorian cottage in 1997 in New London, Conn. It was "a beautiful little place I could afford on my salary. I spent every spare moment fixing it up and creating the kind of home I always dreamed of."
She said she received an eviction notice from the city five years ago "to make way for a luxury hotel, upscale condos and other private developments," which the city said would bring in more tax revenue and jobs. Connecticut's governor recently suspended the evictions of Kelo and her neighbors while the state Legislature considers changing its rules.
"I'm not going anywhere," Kelo said after the hearing. Asked about the notoriety her case has created, she replied, "I'm really a very simple person. I wanted to keep my home."
Eddie Perez, mayor of Hartford, Conn., speaking on behalf of the National League of Cities, said the issue has been distorted by "frenzied rhetoric and misinformation." If used properly, he said, eminent domain "helps cities create jobs, grow business and strengthen neighborhoods.''
Perez said restricting the use of eminent domain "is going to make it harder for those communities to put these plans together." Citing New York's Lincoln Center and Baltimore's Inner Harbor developments, Perez said "New Orleans and Louisiana will not be able to develop" if eminent domain powers are restricted.
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