Think Your Home is Yours?

August 1, 2003

Think Your Home is Yours?

By Bert Gall

Imagine that for nearly 40 years you’ve lived in a cozy, middle-class neighborhood of well-kept colonial homes that has a sweeping view of a river valley. During that time, you’ve raised four children and, like the rest of your neighbors, made many improvements to your house, which you consider to be a dream home. Your home is full of memories of birthday parties, graduation parties and other family celebrations; it’s also been a place where four generations have been able to turn for comfort and a helping hand. You’ve promised your daughter that, one day, you will leave the house to her and her family. You’re proud that your neighborhood is a safe, vibrant community of people who look after one another.

Now imagine that you discover that the City is working with a group of developers to tear down your neighborhood and replace it not with some public use, like a police station, but with high-end shopping and upscale condominiums. The mayor announces that your neighborhood must be “sacrificed” in order to increase the city’s tax base. The City knows that you and many of your neighbors have no desire to leave, so it calls your neighborhood “blighted” to justify taking it by eminent domain and handing it over to the developers. The City concedes that the homes in the area have no structural deficiencies, but says that they have “blighting factors” such as lack of a two-car attached garage, less than two full bathrooms and less than three full bedrooms.

Unfortunately, Jim and JoAnn Saleet of Lakewood, Ohio, don’t have to imagine these events; they’re living them. Instead of enjoying a quiet retirement, they’re now in the fight of their lives, trying to save their home and their neighborhood from the wrecking ball of eminent domain abuse. On May 19, the Institute for Justice joined their fight by filing suit on behalf of them and 16 other families against the City to prevent them from becoming the latest victims of a growing nationwide trend: using bogus “blight” designations as a justification to condemn property and turn it over to private developers.

Everyone knows that Lakewood’s blight designation is ludicrous. The neighborhood is far too safe and attractive for that. Even Mayor Madeline Cain recently described the area as a “cute little neighborhood.” The City and the developers have stretched the definition of blight so far that, under their criteria, the vast majority of Lakewood homes would be considered “blighted”—including the homes of the Mayor and most of the city council. In Lakewood as in other places, the actual definition of “blight” appears to be “whatever land a private developer wants.”

The City has defended its blight designation and its threatened use of eminent domain by saying that a new development is needed to increase Lakewood’s tax base. The Founding Fathers would certainly have rejected this argument out of hand. The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says that governments can only take private property for a public use. Originally, “public use” was understood by everyone to have its ordinary meaning, and eminent domain was intended only for projects that would be owned by and open to the public, such as bridges and roads. Over the past 50 years, local governments like Lakewood have stretched the definition of “public use” to include privately owned projects operated for private profit by politically connected developers. In a definitional twist that Orwell would appreciate, “public use” has become “private use.” As long as that private use will generate additional tax dollars, local governments will slap a blight designation on perfectly nice property in order to give it to private developers.

Of course, any home would generate more tax dollars as a business, and any small business will generate more tax dollars as a big business. Thus, every home or business is up for grabs if a private developer wants the property on which it sits. Unfortunately, the Saleets are absolutely right when they say, “If they can take our home, then no one’s home is safe.”

The Institute for Justice is working to make sure that the Saleets’ home will be safe and that Lakewood bureaucrats don’t succeed in their unconstitutional land-grab. By taking a stand in defense of their homes and businesses, the Saleets and their neighbors are advancing the cause of private property rights for all Americans.

Everyone at the Institute for Justice is proud to stand with them and the other property owners in this fight.

Bert Gall is a staff attorney at the Institute for Justice.

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