By Daryl James
Susie Crabtree keeps her lawn leveled, mowed and free of debris in East Ridge, a quiet community south of Chattanooga. So she was shocked when the city sent her a letter in 2018 telling her that her home was blighted.
Crabtree was not alone. Similar notices went to more than 2,500 families at the same time. Recipients called them the “red zone letters,” referring to the shaded area on city maps marked for demolition to make room for private development.
“Everyone in my neighborhood keeps their yards up,” says Crabtree, a substitute schoolteacher. “But the city wanted to push us out of the way to make room for shops, restaurants and hotels.”
Tennessee banned eminent domain for private benefit in 2006, but East Ridge planners found a workaround. All they have to do when they want to transfer property to special interests is claim blight.
That’s easy to do using vague definitions in the law. Even well-kept homes are not safe—especially when cities and towns see an opportunity to boost property tax revenue through redevelopment.
Municipal planners in a hurry can scale up their operations by designating entire areas for urban renewal. Then they can condemn hundreds or even thousands of parcels all together.
Fortunately, residents banded together in East Ridge and held off eminent domain with help from the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm that fights for property rights. Even with the city in retreat, however, Crabtree worries about the future. She says some neighbors have delayed home improvement projects in anticipation of the government’s next move, while others have put their houses on the market.
The city insists property values will increase, but Crabtree remains skeptical. Only two houses and a thin row of trees will separate her home from a soccer stadium being built for the Chattanooga Red Wolves. When finished, the facility will host concerts and other outdoor events. “You’re going to be able to hear everything,” Crabtree says.
Other homeowners across the state face similar uncertainty. Ending the abuse will require action in the Tennessee General Assembly. One proposal comes from Rep. Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, sponsor of legislation that would close part of the 2006 loophole.
Cities and towns still could use blight as a pretense to seize property, but guilt by association would end. Homeowners like Crabtree could not be punished because neighbors let their properties deteriorate.
Jody Grant, organizer of East Ridge Citizens for Property Rights, saw the problems with fake blight designations when her sister’s historic property fell within the “red zone” in 2018. The house, built in 1895, was well-maintained, but the city still came after it.
That’s when Grant started fighting. “I didn’t want to eat in a restaurant that sits on land that used to be my sister’s home,” she says.
Ending the blight loophole altogether would be the best way to stop the abuse, but the reform bills under consideration in Nashville represent a step in the right direction. Ultimately, municipal planners who use public power for private gain take more than houses. They demolish property rights and bulldoze liberty in the process.
Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.