Family homes that have been handed down generations, nestled among century-old oak trees. A charming, renovated two-story house on the National Register of Historic Places. Church property, donated by parishioners, that serves as the gathering place for the community.
What do these places have in common? All of them are part of a “slum” or “blighted area”—at least, that is, according to the city of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. This past April, Ocean Springs declared all of these—alongside dozens of other well-maintained homes and properties—to be “slum and blighted” in order to designate them as an “urban renewal” area. That designation authorizes the city to use eminent domain to forcibly take away the homes and businesses within the city’s so-called “urban renewal area.”
The city also didn’t tell any residents or property owners that they declared them blighted—or that the blight designation would be final and unappealable if they failed to appeal within 10 days. Unsurprisingly, since no one knew, no one appealed.
Cynthia Fisher has lived in the Railroad District for 70 years. In 1980, she moved around the corner from the home she grew up in, which is now declared “blighted.” At least seven family members, including one of her daughters, live just a few steps away. The houses in her family are over 100 years old; six generations of Cynthia’s family grew up in their Robinson Street house.
Now, Cynthia, along with other home and business owners whose properties have been blighted, are teaming up with the Institute for Justice to launch a federal lawsuit. Well-cared-for property should never be blighted, and blight designations should never be passed in secret. The U.S. Constitution bars government from depriving people of their property rights without due process, but that is exactly what Ocean Springs did.
Senior Vice President and Litigation Director
The Railroad District’s Close-knit Community
The targeted community, still known as the Railroad District because it is nestled along the tracks and near the old station, is the main area of Ocean Springs where Black families now live. Descendants of original residents share stories of how their great-grandparents were pushed to this area during segregation. Families then bought property and built homes, put down roots, raised their children and became a close-knit neighborhood.
All of the long-time neighborhood families own their properties outright, without mortgages. They have homes family members can live in and property that represents the savings and legacy of these families. But a cozy neighborhood of modest homes is not the image Ocean Springs wants to project, and so it has labeled the area blighted—the precursor to forced condemnation.
That prospect does not sit well with Cynthia Fisher. Cynthia lives around the corner from the home she grew up in and her daughter lives there now. She has never considered selling the home or moving from the neighborhood she loves. As soon as Cynthia found out about the blight designation in August 2023, she united with her neighbors to oppose the development plan.
Faye Payton grew up just a few streets away, along with her 11 siblings. She has moved to a different part of Ocean Springs now, but she and her many family members still own a house in the Railroad District, which one of their cousins (who also grew up nearby) occupies. Her home was built in the 1940s by her grandparents, Herbert and Merlissis Thurman. They built it literally brick by brick, purchasing bricks after every payday. Families across the neighborhood similarly built their legacies brick by brick, beam by beam, lovingly improving their houses over time to become lasting investments, safe havens, or homes for future generations.
Ed Williams, too, grew up in the neighborhood and graduated from Elizabeth Keys High School when it was still segregated. He was born on Robinson Street in the 1940s and traveled the country with his wife of 59 years—his childhood sweetheart, who passed away nine months ago—while he was in the Army for 25 years, then returned to Ocean Springs and bought their home just a few streets away from where he grew up in 1976. Ed and his neighbors take care of one another, tending each other’s yards, taking trash cans out, and maintaining their safe, quiet street. Passersby admire Ed’s lovely home and well-kept yard; nobody thinks “slum.”
The Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church has been the church for Ocean Springs’ Black community since 1891. The church has been on Rev. Dr. Jesse L. Trotter Street, in the heart of the Railroad District, for 25 years. It was there during segregation, it was there as the generations grew up but remained a close-knit neighborhood. It is the site of marriages, baptisms, and picnics and serves as a gathering place for the entire community. It, too, is in the so-called blighted area.
Several properties donated by parishioners upon their passing were intended to be used as space for parks or other community use. The blight designation threatens the church’s ability to comply with their wishes.
Bob Zellner has owned and operated Zellner’s Import Auto Services for decades. His business is located in a different area targeted by Ocean Springs for redevelopment. Like the homeowners and the church, Bob was shocked to discover that his property was designated as blighted without any notice.
Cynthia, Faye, and Ed are not alone. Many other homeowners in the historically Black Railroad District neighborhood were similarly astonished to learn they lived in a “slum” and might lose their homes as a result. Many of these families have lived in the area—indeed, in these homes—for generations. Their neighborhood isn’t a slum. It’s home. But Ocean Springs disagrees.
Too Little Too Late
Once people found out about the slum or blight label and possible plans to acquire their property, they began objecting. Ocean Springs circulated a proposed Redevelopment Plan that listed many properties as “possible” acquisitions for development. After weeks of objections at public meetings, at an October 2, 2023, listening session Ocean Springs offered to remove objecting homeowners (but not land or business owners) from the plan.
Unfortunately, getting out of the plan will not protect the owners long-term. In Mississippi, there is no time-limit on blight designations. So even if this particular administration does not want to use eminent domain, a future one could do so because the area has been labeled as slum or blighted.
Even worse, although Mississippi law requires notice of a proposed redevelopment plan, it does not require notice of any amendments to that plan. So the city could, without notifying the owners in the area, amend the plan, adding properties in that had opted out, adding properties that are in the blight area but not mentioned in the current plan, and adding eminent domain.
Blighting Without Notice
This sort of disagreement would ordinarily lead to conflict. Most people, if told the beloved home they grew up in was a “slum,” would object. And the property owners in the neighborhood would have done the same—except they couldn’t.
They couldn’t object because they had no idea anything had happened. The Board of Aldermen designated their neighborhood as a “slum” in April of 2023. The city did not send any letters out and provided no notices that anyone in the area was being declared “blighted” and could lose anything because of it, let alone possibly losing their homes entirely. It was only in the ensuing weeks and months, as city officials discussed possible redevelopment plans for the newly designated “blighted area,” that property owners realized something had gone wrong. And by then, it was too late.
The problem is that Mississippi law requires property owners who want to challenge the creation of a “blighted” area like this to file a challenge to the designation within 10 days of the city council’s vote. If no one objects, the designation is final.
But no one tells the property owners this. The law does not require property owners to receive any kind of notice warning them that their land is being considered as part of a newly declared “slum.” It does not require property owners to get any kind of notice that their property has actually been designated as a slum or blighted. And it does not require any notice that people have a mere 10 days to register their objection.
Mississippi Stacks the Deck Against Property Owners
Ocean Springs followed the letter of Mississippi law: It didn’t tell the homeowners anything, and their rights expired in silence. The city’s blight designation—the April 4, 2023 Resolution—unlocks the power of eminent domain (either now or years in the future, as the city chooses), leaving the homeowners’ property at the whim of whoever holds political power in town.
Property owners fighting eminent domain anywhere face long odds, but Mississippi doesn’t just stack the deck against property owners. It refuses to deal them into the game. No one challenged the April 2023 designation because no one knew it had happened. But the U.S. Constitution forbids governments from taking away rights in secret.
If the government wants the right to take someone’s property through eminent domain, it has to acquire that right fairly—by telling the property owners about it and giving them a fair chance to fight it in court. Mississippi deprives homeowners like Cynthia, Faye, and Ed, as well as the Church, of that basic procedural right.
And that matters all the more here because the Railroad District isn’t blighted. Mississippi law allows governments to use eminent domain in areas that they declare as “slums,” but creating an area like that requires real evidence—in Mississippi, cities must show that a “substantial” number of properties in the area have slum-like or blight conditions. Ocean City’s designations fall far short of the legal minimum. The slum or blight resolution and supporting materials do not point to a single property, let alone a substantial number, that are slum or blighted.
The city didn’t even provide a property-by-property description of the area, detailing what they viewed as shortcomings of individual homes and properties, when the blight designation was considered and approved. Instead, the city relied on a 200-word letter from the city planner, that simply says that four “slum and blight” criteria were observed in the area—with no specifics.
In short, the community south of Bienville Boulevard is a perfectly nice neighborhood—just not nice enough for Ocean Springs.
This fight about blight comes in the context of Mississippi’s response to the Supreme Court’s widely reviled decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which allowed the use of eminent domain for “economic development.” In response, Mississippi amended its state constitution to strictly limit when the government can take property and turn it over to another private owner—but it left its definitions of “slum and blighted” areas untouched. Those definitions, which have not been updated in decades, are what Ocean Springs is using to threaten the Railroad District homeowners.
That is why IJ has teamed up with Cynthia, Ed, Faye, and the Church to challenge the slum and blight designation in federal court.
The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees that the government cannot take away people’s property without due process. Two critical features of due process are adequate notice that your property rights are being threatened and a meaningful opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time.
Ocean Springs provided neither. It told no one about the impending blight designation. It sent no individual notices to owners in the area. It didn’t even provide a list of properties that would be affected. All it did was post an agenda item for an upcoming meeting a few days earlier—an agenda item that didn’t even mention slum or blight.
As no one knew about the hearing, no owner spoke at the hearing. By failing to give notice, Ocean Springs deprived owners of a meaningful opportunity to be heard.
The opportunity to be heard afterwards is insufficient, because owners already have lost important rights, and that loss is permanent unless the blight designation is declared invalid. In any future eminent domain action, the owners may not defend themselves by arguing that the area is not blighted. Losing that right deprives owners of one of the most effective defenses against future eminent domain proceedings.
In order to properly challenge a slum or blight designation, owners need individual notice, and they need notice with enough time to find an attorney and submit evidence opposing the slum or blight. Ocean Springs obviously did not provide this.
Mississippi law does not require any notice about slum or blight designations, and so Mississippi’s law violates due process, as do the actions of Ocean Springs.
The Litigation Team
Ocean Springs property owners are represented by IJ Senior Vice President and Litigation Director Dana Berliner, IJ Deputy Litigation Director Bob McNamara, IJ Attorney Suranjan Sen, and IJ Litigation Fellow Dylan Moore. Elizabeth Feder-Hosey of Ocean Springs is local counsel.
The Institute for Justice
The Institute for Justice (IJ) is the national law firm for liberty and a prominent defender of private property rights. IJ is the leading advocate against eminent domain abuse. IJ represented Susette Kelo and other homeowners in New London, Connecticut, to save their homes from being demolished due to abuse of eminent domain in the now infamous Kelo v. New London. Since Kelo, and largely due to IJ’s efforts, 47 states have strengthened their protections against eminent domain abuse, either through legislation or state supreme court decisions. IJ will be arguing at the Supreme Court this term in DeVillier v. Texas, a case about a family farm flooded out following highway renovations. IJ is currently defending homeowners in Georgia who are being threatened with eminent domain for a private railway.