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Fighting for Rights and What is Right in New Jersey

A southern New Jersey township is demonstrating just how far tax-hungry government officials will go in their quest for pie-in-the-sky development—and why restrictions on the use of eminent domain are so desperately needed to protect hard-working property owners.

Mount Holly officials have been using the threat of eminent domain to rip apart the Gardens, a community once home to 1,000 residents. Officials bought up more than 300 garden-style row homes and are boarding them up then tearing them down, even while they are still attached to homes that are lived in—creating “blight” with reckless demolitions that often cause severe damage to the remaining homes.

The spacious but modestly priced homes in the Gardens have attracted hard-working, low-income families since they were built in the 1950s—typically African American and Hispanic first-time homebuyers. The Gardens became a close-knit, vibrant community where residents took care of one another.

But Mount Holly officials decided 10 years ago to give the community to Philadelphia developer Keating Urban Partners so that firm could build over-priced luxury apartments and townhomes.

Leona Wright is one of the residents the township is trying to get rid of. She turned 92 last month. When she moved to the Gardens, her son was in third grade; he is now a grandfather. Her family purchased two row homes and combined them into one when her now-deceased husband, a World War II veteran, was stationed at Fort Dix. Her home is lovingly decorated with photos of her family.
Nancy Lopez also lives in the Gardens. She raised five children on her own in her three-bedroom home. At times she has worked two jobs to afford her mortgage, and also went back to school to improve her employment prospects. Her children have all gone on to college or entered the workforce and are themselves homeowners.

These women and their neighbors deserve to keep what they have worked so hard to own.

To raise awareness about this abuse and to reinforce the community’s unity and resolve, IJ teamed up with residents and held a Harvest Festival this past fall with games, prizes, donated food and a line-up of speakers from across the state. We also placed op-eds in the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Huffington Post. In January, we launched a billboard campaign, and produced a video that can be viewed at www.ij.org/MountHolly.

To underscore not only the moral bankruptcy of what the township is doing, but also its economic bankruptcy, IJ’s Strategic Research team documented that the township’s fiscal-impact study of the development relied on unrealistic assumptions about the housing market and the economy. Based on our findings, the township could actually suffer an annual loss of $1 million—that’s 10 percent of the township’s entire budget.

So far, township leaders are unmoved. During the holidays, the remaining residents (less than one third of the Gardens’ residents are left) received the township’s final offers for their homes, which they had until mid-January to accept or face condemnation.

The Gardens has been destroyed for a project that may result in a loss for the township of $1 million a year. Not only do officials refuse to provide residents with replacement housing in the new development, the amounts being offered them are half the amount smaller versions of their homes are selling for just a few blocks away.

As of the end of February, the Gardens’ residents remain in limbo—but they fight on, knowing that this is an unconscionable abuse of power that is emblematic of New Jersey’s horrible eminent domain law. The Institute for Justice will continue to fight for justice for the Gardens’ homeowners and for reform at the state level to prevent this tragedy from ever happening again.

Christina Walsh is IJ’s director of activism and coalitions.

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