Russian Mayor Takes Eminent Domain from US Playbook

In Soviet Russia, Politicians Vote Out You

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that working-class residents of Russia’s gilded capital recently took to the streets, amid online grassroots organizing, to protest heinous violations of their constitutional rights. No, we’re not talking about the latest military invasion or violent crackdown on dissent, but a form of governmental abuse that is already quite common across America: eminent domain.

The troubles in Moscow began when Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, decided it was time to aggressively “modernize” the nation’s capital.  In addition to destroying small businesses across the city without compensating their owners, Sobyanin wanted to knock down thousands of Soviet-era apartment blocks and resettle roughly 1 million residents in new high rises. By the mayor’s reckoning, the existing buildings were old, hastily built, and long neglected. He’s even promising better affordable housing to all the residents his eminent domain action would displace. But to many of the people living in them, these apartments are homes they have no desire to leave.

As NPR reports:

Opponents of the plan don’t believe the mayor’s promise that they’ll receive an apartment of equal size in the same district. They also doubt the quality of the new buildings and fear that Moscow will become a concrete jungle of 20-story high rises.

Most of all, they don’t like being treated like “sheep led to slaughter,” as Sazonkina puts it.

Yuliya Galyamina, a linguist turned civic activist who organized Sunday’s rally, believes the real reason for the mass resettlement program is to revive the Moscow real estate market, which has been battered by Russia’s economic downturn.

“The government treats the people like Soviet people, but there are no Soviet people anymore,” said Galyamina. “People are different now. They’ve become property owners and have a sense of self-respect.

Galyamina claims “Putin’s friends” came up with the demolition plan because they view their fellow citizens as nothing more than a source of income.

This flagrant abuse of Muscovite property rights might seem horrifically dystopian, but it is hauntingly familiar to many Americans.  In fact, you can easily replace references to Moscow and Russia with American analogs. A decade ago, there was the infamous Kelo v. New London case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court after local government officials and a private developer used eminent domain against an entire neighborhood of protesting residents for the sake of promised development that never came. Down the Connecticut coastline in West Haven, city officials are similarly using eminent domain to replace some homeowners with a strip mall. And the list goes on.

Long Branch, New Jersey officials colluded with a developer to evict a scenic community of modest means and build upscale condominiums there instead. Mayor Bob Hall of Charlestown, Indiana is currently trying to get around Indiana’s protections against eminent domain to demolish the working-class neighborhood of Pleasant Ridge and replace it with upscale “redevelopment.”

In all these cases and many more, the Institute for Justice (IJ) has stood up for residents who want to keep their homes. IJ has been a leading advocate, in the courtroom and elsewhere, for protecting property rights and fighting eminent. In one of its earliest cases, IJ attorneys even took on future U.S. President Donald Trump to stop eminent domain in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Whether you live in a Soviet-era Russian apartment or a blue-collar community on the Ohio River, hardworking families should be the ultimate deciders of what happens to their homes. As Moscow resident and protestor Anna Sazonkina forcefully argued, abusive eminent domain is a violation of constitutionally-guaranteed property rights.

It’s time for it to stop.

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