Boots on the Ground: One Mayor’s Plan to Destroy a Community Dating Back to World War II

In late September, I packed my megaphone and took the next flight to Indiana to deliver fighting words and reassure property owners that they have the right to keep their homes. The city of Charlestown plans to seize and demolish 354 homes in order to build newer homes and retail—even though the plan grossly violates Indiana law and the Constitution.

Take action now: tell the Charlestown City Council (Gmail users click here) that property owners have the right to keep what they have worked so hard to own. Property rights do not depend on whether your land could make more money as something else.

I’d been to Charlestown twice earlier in the summer to investigate the allegation of this outrageous landgrab scheme. I’d spoken out against the plan at a City Council meeting, given multiple interviews, coordinated a coalition letter, held a town-hall meeting, helped homeowners collect thousands of signatures and provided ongoing guidance, but Mayor Bob Hall couldn’t be dissuaded from his plan.

So I went back to Indiana. On a beautiful, cloudless Saturday in September, the Charlestown Pleasant Ridge Neighborhood Association, with assistance from IJ, hosted a “blighted block party” with speeches, bands and games. More than 250 people from the community attended to demonstrate their support for the residents of Pleasant Ridge.

In addition to the face painting, games and merriment, several partygoers were brought to tears by hand-made posters that homeowners had prepared. Through pictures and short write-ups, more than 20 homeowners told their stories, how long they had lived in Pleasant Ridge and what the community meant to them.

Tina Barnes was one of the homeowners who put together a poster. Tina is like many Pleasant Ridge residents—honest, hardworking and scrambling to make ends meet. She’s a medical receptionist who is raising her two granddaughters on her own. Her home in Pleasant Ridge is a duplex, which allows her handicapped daughter to live in an independent environment; Tina and her granddaughters live feet away.

Tina’s family is not alone. There are dozens of veterans and elderly people living on fixed incomes sprinkled throughout the community. Charlestown is a small, struggling town, near Louisville, Ky., home to 7,700 people.

In June 2014, Charlestown applied for $5.3 million from the federal “Hardest Hit Fund,” which is administered through Indiana’s Blight Elimination Program. Although Charlestown recently withdrew its application from consideration, the mayor intends to apply for a second round of funding in early November. Through the BEP program, many Pleasant Ridge residents would be offered $6,000 for their homes, and if owners refuse to sell, the city will attempt to take the homes through eminent domain. But the Constitution is clear: eminent domain is strictly for public use, things like roads and schools—not private development. Plus, Indiana’s strong 2006 eminent domain reforms—a law that IJ was instrumental in passing—prohibit the type of scheme Charlestown has cooked up.

The city of Charlestown has made two main arguments for why the neighborhood must go. First, the city argues that Pleasant Ridge was conceived of as “temporary” and second, that its residents are “transient.”

But these homes are far from temporary. The city’s population surged as a large munitions plant drew in hundreds of workers during mobilization for World War II. Pleasant Ridge was built to house these workers. The neighborhood consists of Gunnison Homes, designed by architect Richard Drewry, which were designed, constructed and erected as fully finished prefabricated duplexes with plumbing and heating.

Contrary to the city’s claims, Pleasant Ridge was purposefully designed to stand the test of time. The homes were built with white oak floors and many remain in good condition. Some owners have renovated their homes, replaced windows and lovingly maintained them. One even added a swimming pool.

The city of Charlestown has another problem with its argument. In stark contrast to Pleasant Ridge’s durable and finished duplexes, most homes constructed during mobilization for World War I and World War II were unfinished: the interior and exterior walls of homes were unpainted, interior walls lacked insulation, tarpaper was used on roofs, ceilings were omitted and interior plumbing was not installed. Pleasant Ridge was not your ordinary barracks. Thus, the city’s scheme is not only illegal, their historical argument is also bogus.

The city also likes to claim that Pleasant Ridge residents are largely transient. The majority of residents I interviewed have lived in their homes for 20, 30 or 40 years, including Dave Keith, who has resided in the neighborhood since 1968. He and his wife, Ellen, raised three children there. When Dave purchased the home, it was a two-unit duplex, but he converted the duplex into a single-family home and has made renovations over the years. His backyard includes a well-maintained fence with an irrigation system to water his flowers when he’s out of town. Dave can hardly be described as “transient” and his home is certainly not “temporary.”

Another “transient” resident is Dorothy Smith, who has lived in Pleasant Ridge for 50 years. And then there’s Barb Coda, whose family has owned her home since 1955.

As a new homeowner, I am outraged by the city’s overt attempt to displace moderate-income residents, the working poor, retired people, veterans and disabled persons. This is America, not some banana republic where your deed is just another worthless piece of paper marked with an official stamp. Property rights do not depend on whether your land could make more money as something else. T

he Institute for Justice will muster all of its resources to hold Mayor Hall accountable and to stop the Charlestown’s unconstitutional and unconscionable landgrab once and for all.

— Melinda Haring
Melinda Haring is the activism manager at the Institute for Justice

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