With the stroke of a pen, five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court gave their assent to taxation by eminent domain by putting tax revenue above private property rights. Our message to the government is: “mi casa no es su casa!”
Because of the Kelo v. City of New London decision, significant new protections for Texas homeowners must be a high priority for the Texas Legislature. Caught in the vice between government’s insatiable appetite for revenue and the Court’s affirmation that homes can be taken as a means of taxation, every homeowner must demand strong protections for private property rights by amending the Texas Constitution.
We are especially concerned about Kelo’s effect on lower-income Texans who tend to be the victims of eminent domain proceedings. It is not residents of Highland Park in Dallas, River Oaks in Houston or Alamo Heights in San Antonio who have most to fear from the Court’s ruling. Low property values in impoverished areas of Texas cities are inviting targets for city, county and state government seeking expand their reach and tax revenue.
Justice Clarence Thomas’ dissent shares our concern for the poor:
“Allowing the government to take property solely for public purposes is bad enough, but extending the concept of public purpose to encompass any economically beneficial goal guarantees that these losses will fall disproportionately on poor communities.”
We have seen first-hand how government exercises the power of eminent domain. Private property rights are often abridged because of the strong union between government and powerful interests to the detriment to the poor who are also politically weak. Where are new stadiums built? Where are new parks built? The Local Government Code gives local governments a laundry list of excuses to take property from low-income Hispanics.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor underscored the point when she wrote: “…who among us can say she already makes the most productive or attractive possible use of her property? The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.” In other words, unless our property maximizes revenue to government then our property can be taken for whatever purpose as long as revenue to government increases. Now, there is absolutely no barrier to government claims on your home and land.
That is a special concern for Hispanics who are less-well off compared to the Anglo population. Dr. Steve Murdock, State Demographer at the University of Texas-San Antonio, has presented compelling documentation at HOPE events that Hispanics tend to live in areas with lower value homes. Many cases that have allowed an "expansive" use of condemnation involve middle to lower income neighborhoods, precisely the areas in which Hispanics reside in large numbers.
Homeownership is the biggest investment most Americans will ever make: it represents the greatest fruit of their labor and demonstrates a willingness to work, save, invest and sacrifice for their benefit of their family. The Kelo decision sends the wrong message to those who are trying hard to climb the ladder of success, and to young Hispanics who are just getting started along the path of homeownership.
The Texas Legislature must pass new legislation and allow voters the opportunity to amend the Texas Constitution not just for the sake of Hispanic Texans, but for every homeowner. It’s time the Texas Constitution clearly protected our homes from the government.
The authors are residents of Texas, and serve on the board of directors of Hispanics for Opportunity, Progress and Education (HOPE), a Hispanic public policy organization. Cuevas is a restaurant owner in Midland, Texas; Monty is an attorney in Houston, Texas.