Property Rights Standoff

March 24, 2017

A few years ago, IJ introduced readers of Liberty & Law to the courageous homeowners in the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood of Charlestown, Indiana. Supported by our activism team, they stood up to the mayor and a private developer, who wanted to bulldoze low-income Pleasant Ridge to build an upscale subdivision. We prevailed in November 2014 when the state of Indiana scuttled a “blight elimination” grant and the City Council voted the project down.

But like horror movie villains, the mayor and developer have come after the neighborhood again, and this time we are taking them to court. In early February, IJ launched a pathbreaking legal challenge to defend dozens of Pleasant Ridge homes from the wrecking ball. The city’s scheme is so patently unjust that even Justice Sandra Day O’Connor failed to foresee it in her Kelo dissent, in which she warned only of “replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.” In Charlestown, it is even worse. Here, the government wants to take homes of lower-income families and replace them with homes for more well-to-do families. 

As with all IJ lawsuits, our extraordinary clients are the backbone of our case.

Josh’s Story

Thirty-two-year-old Josh Craven grew up in the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood. He is a single dad to a four-year-old girl, supporting his little family as an exterminator. Josh and his daughter live in a small home in Pleasant Ridge that he is buying from his dad. He is terrified of losing his home because it is the only one that he can realistically afford.

Josh is unable to devote all of his time away from work to raising his little girl. As president of the Pleasant Ridge Neighborhood Association, Josh is locked in a legal and political battle with the city that often seems like a full-time job. Imagine coming home from work each day only to begin your second “job” of trying to fight off the mayor and his developer.

For Josh, the fight is not just about saving his home and the homes of his neighbors. It is also about teaching his daughter that she matters and that she is not—as city documents have called the neighborhood—a “stigma” that “stymies economic growth.” As Josh puts it, “I may never win Father of the Year, but being able to show my daughter the importance of never backing down when surrounded by injustice has been enough to make me a proud parent.”

Tina’s Story

Much like Josh, Tina Barnes is an accidental hero. She is a single mom caring for a disabled adult daughter and raising two teenage granddaughters as her own. Trying to make ends meet as a medical billing clerk, Tina was overjoyed a few years ago to move her family into their Pleasant Ridge home. For Tina, who had been a longtime Pleasant Ridge resident, it was a homecoming.

Tina never envisioned that one day she would lead a David-versus-Goliath charge against city hall, and she certainly never imagined that she would do it as an elected official. But that is what happened when, at her neighbors’ insistence, Tina ran and was elected to represent Pleasant Ridge on the Charlestown City Council in 2015. Twice a month she squares off against the mayor and his handpicked allies as the sole voice of dissent.

Tina’s predicament is typical of Pleasant Ridge residents. She has nowhere to go and losing her home would mean not only losing her beloved neighborhood, but also leaving town altogether. And like Josh’s, Tina’s fight is just as much about her dignity as it is about her home: “We’re hardworking people, we come to each other’s aid, we love our neighborhood.”

David and Ellen’s Story

David and Ellen Keith should be on cruise control through their golden years. David is a retired autoworker and Ellen works part time as a hairdresser. They live in Pleasant Ridge next door to their daughter, granddaughter and two great-grandchildren. Their idyllic lives and immaculate home are a testament to the American Dream.

But the road has turned out to be far rougher than expected. Ever since the mayor declared in 2014 that every home in Pleasant Ridge, no matter how lovingly maintained, must be demolished, David and Ellen have faced a frightening future.

For David, who worked hard and paid his taxes, the idea that the government can throw him out of his own home in retirement is incomprehensible: “I thought that when your house is paid for, you’ve got it made.” Ellen, whose unwavering confidence is an inspiration to the whole neighborhood, has no doubt about the outcome: “We will be on this hill when this battle is over. We’re going to be standing in this yard.”

The Fight

This fight has presented unique challenges apart from the sheer number of homes involved. Charlestown is doing many illegal things, and they are illegal in several ways. The city is planning to use a combination of property-code enforcement and eminent domain to force the sale of Pleasant Ridge homes to the developer. In the latter half of 2016, the city imposed illegal and unconstitutional fines on Pleasant Ridge properties owned by landlords to force 140 sales to the developer for roughly $10,000 each. The city imposed a $8,950 fine on the Neighborhood Association’s duplex for small and quickly corrected deficiencies. The city’s plan violates city ordinances, Indiana state law, and the Indiana and U.S. Constitutions.

Once the city has exhausted its code-enforcement strategy, which IJ is now trying to bring to an immediate halt in court, the city is expected to turn to eminent domain. Just as we are defending against bogus code enforcement, we will stop the abuse of eminent domain.

The law does not allow Charlestown to take a low-income mom’s home so that a developer can build a house for someone wealthier. When the battle is over, IJ and its clients will still be standing in Pleasant Ridge.

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