May 27, 2016

For more than 30 years, Hinga Mbogo has been fixing the cars of Dallas residents at his shop on Ross Avenue. He was raised on a farm in Kenya, where he developed a love for mechanics in his youth by repairing broken-down farm vehicles.

Hinga fell in love with Dallas on a visit and moved there to fulfill his dream of owning his own repair shop. He opened his shop in 1986 and has since become one of the city’s most trusted mechanics.

But Dallas has been trying to shut him down for more than a decade in order to clear the way for restaurants and other retail outlets. As one city councilmember put it:

[S]ometimes when you have a proliferation of these auto-related businesses, you’re not going to get national-accredited tenants come in like Starbucks, Macaroni Grill or nice sit-down restaurants and so forth. They’re not going to spend a million dollars or two million dollars to be next door.

In 2005, Dallas changed the zoning along Ross Avenue, where Hinga’s Automotive is located, to specifically exclude auto-related businesses. Using an oppressive and little-known process called “amortization,” the city gave businesses that did not conform to the new zoning rules a certain number of years to continue to operate. At the end of that time, the now-illegal businesses had to cease operation. And the city would not have to pay any of them a single dime. In many states, when cities change their zoning laws, they permit already-existing businesses to be grandfathered into the new scheme, meaning they are allowed to stay in business without having to worry about being zoned out by the city. But not in Dallas. Dallas allows businesses to continue to operate but puts an artificial cap on how many years they can do so.

Conforming to the new zoning rule would force Hinga to stop fixing cars at his property. Hinga is tenacious and has been fighting to keep his business alive. But his time has run out. On April 13, the Dallas City Council denied his request to stay on Ross Avenue a few more years. Councilmembers proclaimed their support for private property rights but nonetheless voted to apply the zoning rules to Hinga so that they can fulfill their “vision” of Ross Avenue as a “gateway” to the Arts District.

This disdain for a long-time business is not surprising. Immigrant and minority-owned businesses are often the targets of planners with a vision of a sterile, homogeneous cityscape that looks just like every other centrally planned, gentrified area.

IJ mobilized a massive media, lobbying and activism effort to help Hinga save his property. More than 82,000 Americans signed a petition on urging the city of Dallas to do the right thing. Dozens protested outside City Hall. People spoke at the City Council meeting and, when they could not speak, they stood in the audience in solidarity. Media outlets from around the country including The Wall Street Journal, which published an editorial, covered the story. Dallas nonetheless decided to stop a much-beloved entrepreneur from earning his livelihood. Hinga must now seek other ways.

Amortization is an abuse of property rights because the city does not need to pay Hinga anything before driving his business away. Unfortunately, for decades, courts have allowed municipalities to abuse property owners through amortization. IJ is fighting together with Hinga to end this pernicious practice and establish that, in America, the government cannot destroy businesses just because a planner has a “vision” of a city that does not include businesses they do not like.

Bill Maurer is the managing attorney of IJ Washington.

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