Eminent domain - Tool of last resort: Baltimore MD Examiner, 2/21/07


Cities around the nation have come to routinely demolish decrepit or abandoned buildings in neighborhoods to eliminate “blight.” Baltimore is one of them. Often, these are abandoned properties, where taxes have not been paid for some time.

And by using the power of eminent domain — the right of government to seize private property for the “public good” — cities may purchase homes and businesses standing in the way of urban renewal plans. These plans often call for new shopping centers or upscale housing that can increase a city’s tax base and attract new residents. This application of eminent domain is relatively recent, with government exercising the power in the past primarily for infrastructure projects.

In and of themselves, the new housing and retail centers are not bad. And they may improve the quality of life for residents who use them.

But the tool should not be used lightly. Private property rights are some of the most sacred of those laid out in the U.S. Constitution. The Baltimore Development Corp. has proven that has not always been the case. The state’s highest court last year forced the group — charged with overseeing city renewal projects — to open up its meetings and papers largely as a result of secrecy surrounding eminent domain projects. More recently, the Maryland Court of Appeals outlawed the use of “quick takes” for yet-to-be-proposed economic development projects — also in response to BDC actions.

And research shows those displaced by eminent domain pay a high price.

Historically, urban renewal schemes disproportionately uproot blacks from their homes and businesses, triggering a host of other losses. A new study by Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University, outlines them. The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit that legally represents home and business owners whose property has been seized through eminent domain, published the report.

Under the Federal Housing Act, in force between 1949 and 1973, urban renewal projects “displaced 1 million people, two-thirds of them African American,” writes Fullilove. Given the disproportionate number of blacks affected by eminent domain, Fullilove sees the policy as part of chain of events starting with slavery that “have threatened African Americans’ lives homes, and family.” It’s hard not to agree.

Segregation policies in place during part of the time the Federal Housing Act was in place made finding a new home more difficult. That issue does not exist today, but the other losses are still very much in effect. They include separation from family, friends and political organizations, the need to pay more for a new home in a different neighborhood, increased risk for depression and heart attack, and loss of respect for government.

Given Baltimore City’s vigorous use of eminent domain for urban renewal projects, now would be a good time to re-evaluate its impact on the city, where 64 percent of residents are blacks.

A better solution for renewing Baltimore would be to make structural reforms such as improving schools and lowering property taxes to make the city attractive to the professionals it wants. The city must not perpetuate the legacy of displacement haunting the majority of its residents.

Baltimore MD Examiner: http://www.examiner.com