Christmas came early for the homeowners of the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood of Charlestown, Indiana.
On December 4, the judge in IJ’s major property rights lawsuit issued a preliminary injunction against the city and ordered its officials to stop fining Pleasant Ridge residents as part of its effort to destroy the 70-year-old neighborhood and replace it with upscale houses. This was an enormous victory for IJ’s clients, who feared that this Christmas would be their last in the proud working-class area. The injunction is not the end of the case, but it does put a serious—and perhaps fatal—roadblock in the way of the city’s unconstitutional and illegal campaign of Robin Hood in reverse.
The city’s actions demonstrate how far governments will go to violate constitutional rights if meaningful judicial checks are not there to stop them. Charlestown’s mayor, Bob Hall, has long wanted to destroy Pleasant Ridge—where people can rent a home or pay a mortgage for a very affordable price. And so he teamed up with a Louisville businessman, John Neace, to hatch the following scheme.
The city would fine owners for property code violations, often for minor infractions and without providing any warning. The fines would amount to hundreds of dollars a day and begin accruing immediately. Then, the city would tell the owner they could either fix everything and pay the thousands upon thousands of dollars in fines or sell the property. And the only buyer on the market for the property would be Neace, who would be willing to pay only $10,000 per home, a fraction of the market value. After Neace acquired some of the homes, the city would forgive the fines because he would promise to eventually tear the buildings down. Meanwhile, tenants would continue to live in the homes, with none of the code violations fixed.
The injunction is not the end of the case, but it does put a serious—and perhaps fatal—roadblock in the way of the city’s unconstitutional and illegal campaign of Robin Hood in reverse.
At the court hearing, Mayor Hall tried to justify this horrific scheme by testifying in court that many Pleasant Ridge residents “are not contributing to society.” In essence, Charlestown’s argument is that poor people tarnish a city’s image, so it can kick them out of town.
Thankfully, the court rejected this reasoning. It found that the city violated the U.S. and Indiana constitutions’ guarantees of equal protection by fining people in order to force them to move and then waiving the fines for Neace.
“Plaintiffs are providing safe housing that endangers neither tenants nor neighbors, and Plaintiffs should be treated at least as well under the law as the developer who is providing unsafe housing,” wrote the judge in his order.
The court also found that the city violated its own property maintenance code by refusing to give property owners a chance to fix code violations before being fined.
The city has appealed the ruling, so a showdown awaits in the Indiana Court of Appeals, and perhaps even higher. IJ will continue to vigorously defend our clients’ right to live in their homes in their treasured neighborhood. In the meantime, Pleasant Ridge residents welcome the New Year determined to protect their property rights—and everything they make possible—now more than ever