By Michael Bindas
In January, the Institute for Justice scored yet another grassroots victory against eminent domain abuse. IJ galvanized a courageous group of Seattle property owners who defeated a government plan to “blight” their neighborhood and call in the bulldozers.
Seattle activist Kwan Fong stands in front of his business property, which the City of Seattle sought to “blight.”
Seattle’s reckless scheme dates back to early 2006, when officials commissioned a “blight study” to justify using Washington’s Community Renewal Law (CRL) in the Rainier Valley neighborhood, one of America’s most diverse working-class communities. Under the CRL, a municipality can declare an entire neighborhood “blighted”—based on factors that have absolutely nothing to do with health or safety—then use eminent domain to “redevelop” the area. The law practically invites eminent domain abuse.
It came as no surprise, then, when Seattle’s “study” concluded that 1,391 acres of Rainier Valley—including 6,390 households sheltering 24,000 residents—were blighted. Based on that bogus determination, the city proposed a “community renewal plan” that included the power to condemn.
Rainier Valley’s residents fought back. Disgusted that their own government would write off their community to make way for private development, the residents called the IJ Washington Chapter. That call triggered a coast-to-coast effort, in which IJ-WA Executive Director Bill Maurer and Staff Attorney Michael Bindas were joined in Seattle by Castle Coalition Director Steven Anderson and IJ Vice President for Communications John Kramer from IJ’s Virginia headquarters to educate and train the residents’ grassroots activist group: Many Cultures, One Message (MCOM).
MCOM and IJ succeeded in bringing significant public attention to the issue—attention the city did not want. The team communicated through radio, television and the editorial pages to speak out against the city’s plan, receiving coverage in outlets as diverse as The Wall Street Journal and Real Change, a small weekly paper sold by Seattle’s homeless population. The tide really turned in early January when Seattle’s two leading newspapers editorialized for reform of the Community Renewal Law.
In light of the overwhelming political opposition that Seattle property owners and IJ mobilized, the mayor’s office officially abandoned the city’s plan. The victory was a testament to the courage of Rainier Valley’s residents and to the ability of IJ’s many offices to work together seamlessly in the cause of justice.
Michael Bindas is an IJ-WA staff attorney.