Arrested Redevelopment in California

March 29, 2012

On February 1, after years of terrorizing property owners with the threat of condemnation for private development, redevelopment agencies were officially dissolved in California.  Home and small business owners across the state are finally free from the very real daily fear that their property would be next on the chopping block.

Redevelopment in California has been a billion-dollar boondoggle that used eminent domain as its development tool of choice.  These agencies routinely took from those of modest means to give to rich developers for pipe-dream projects that rarely generated promised tax revenues or jobs.

The Institute for Justice catalogued more than 200 projects that abused eminent domain across the Golden State during the past 10 years alone.  The elimination of redevelopment agencies is a historic victory for property owners, and we applaud the courageous, relentless local activists who stood steadfast on the frontlines against these avaricious and abusive institutions.

In an effort to offset the state’s debt, Governor Jerry Brown proposed eliminating the nearly 400 redevelopment agencies, which, in addition to habitually abusing eminent domain, siphoned billions of dollars away from local public infrastructure, directing that money into redevelopment coffers instead.  In response to a lawsuit filed by the well-funded redevelopment lobby (funded, ironically, by taxpayers), the California Supreme Court upheld the agencies’ dissolution.

Through community trainings, conferences, public demonstrations and media campaigns, the Institute for Justice worked with property owners across the state to fight illegitimate land grabs.  Among many other successes, San Pablo property owners defeated a proposal to re-establish eminent domain authority over 90 percent of the entire city, and Baldwin Park property owners drove a developer out of town who wanted to replace 100 homes and 300 locally owned businesses with a ridiculously out-of-touch “urban village”—premised on bringing in chain restaurants like Applebee’s to take the place of community-based Hispanic businesses.

Others fell victim to the redevelopment machine before the machine itself could be smashed into oblivion.  John Revelli lost his entire retirement savings when the city of Oakland took his second-generation tire shop to replace it with upscale residential development.  After his family’s home was seized by Communists, Ahmad Mesdaq fled the war in Afghanistan, came to the United States, and built the stylish and successful Gran Havana Cigar & Coffee Lounge that attracted celebrities and politicians.  The redevelopment agency took it from him for a Marriott that was never built; today, the lot that once housed his thriving business is a parking lot.  He can never get back what’s been taken from him—but to this day, he wants to rebuild.  His indomitable spirit is an inspiration.

“Redevelopment” destroyed lives in its wake, and those stories should never be forgotten.

Despite the absence of any proof that redevelopment agencies accomplished anything good, the beneficiaries of eminent domain abuse will undoubtedly try to resurrect some form of redevelopment.  IJ will remain vigilant in its commitment to ensuring that Californians will no longer be subject to the abuse of government power that comes in the form of bogus blight designations, land grabs for ill-conceived projects, or perverse incentives that put private property rights in the crosshairs of tax-hungry politicians and their well-connected developer friends.

Christina Walsh is the Institute’s director of activism and coalitions.

Also in this issue

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