Three Days Before Christmas, N.J. Town Tells Elderly Minorities: “We’re Kicking You Out”

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · December 28, 2010

Arlington, Va.—Just three days before Christmas, Nancy Lopez was notified that she has until January 15, 2011, to accept the offer made for her home by the Township of Mount Holly, N.J., or have it seized through eminent domain. Merry Christmas, Nancy.

Last week, she received an appraisal for her home in the Gardens neighborhood of Mount Holly. Township officials have been systematically dismantling her close-knit community of row houses that up until recently was home to more than 300 families. Since 2003, the Township bought more than 200 homes under the threat of eminent domain, and if the remaining owners don’t accept the appraisals being sent to them this holiday season, their homes will be condemned against their will early in the New Year.

The Township wants to give the land to Philadelphia developer Keating Urban Partners, which plans to build hundreds of higher-priced townhouses, apartments and a business center. According to Pulte Home’s website, some of the new town homes will sell for in the upper $200s.

The Institute for Justice has been working with the local community group, Citizens in Action, to fight this use of eminent domain for private development. “Eminent domain is for public use, things like roads and schools—not to condemn and uproot entire communities for the sake of private developers,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. Bullock represented Susette Kelo and her neighbors before the U.S. Supreme Court in Kelo v. City of New London, as well as homeowners in Long Branch, N.J., and others across the nation.

“This is eminent domain abuse at its worst,” said Christina Walsh, director of activism and coalitions at the Institute for Justice. “The Mount Holly landgrab is reminiscent of urban renewal of the 40s and 50s. Township officials are targeting a lower-income, mostly elderly and minority community for a rich developer. As the NAACP noted in its amicus brief on behalf of the homeowners in Kelo, the ability to use eminent domain for private development shifts the burden of economic development onto the shoulders of those least able to bear it. That is precisely what we are seeing happen in Mount Holly.”

In Kelo, the U.S. Supreme Court infamously ruled that private property can be taken for private development based on the mere promise of increased tax revenue. “Across the country, development projects that have relied on the use of eminent domain have failed miserably to fulfill their promises,” said Bullock. “Just look at New London: After years of litigation, millions in tax payer dollars and a U.S. Supreme Court case, the land is now barren, the developer balked and Pfizer—for whom the private development was designed to complement—left town. Mount Holly officials should heed a lesson from the disastrous New London project.”

Most of the homeowners in the Gardens are in theirs 70s, 80s and 90s and African-American or Hispanic. Many have faced serious health complications and family tragedies and deaths since the proposal for the demolition of their neighborhood was announced. Nearly all have lived in the Gardens for more than 30 years and are first-time home buyers.

“I don’t want to leave Mount Holly. My kids, my grandkids—everything is here,” said Nancy Lopez. “If I’m forced out of the Gardens, I won’t be able to afford to buy a house like mine. Why should I rent when I’ve been a homeowner all my life?”

According to Victimizing the Vulnerable: The Demographics of Eminent Domain Abuse, the poor, less educated and minorities are disproportionately targets of eminent domain abuse. This national study examined U.S. Census data to determine the profile of people subject to eminent domain abuse in 184 projects across the country. The study vindicates the warning offered by former-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote in her dissent in Kelo that eminent domain would be used “to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more.”

“Being kicked out of one’s home is a heartbreaking experience, say people who lived through it,” said Mindy Thompson Fullilove, M.D., a professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University. “The heartbreak lasts for decades, because the lost home also means a loss of a net of social relationships and friendships that are irreplaceable. In these times of instability, forced displacement and destruction of neighborhoods should be avoided at all costs.” Dr. Fullilove is the author of Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It, as well as an Institute for Justice Perspective on Eminent Domain Abuse, “Eminent Domain & African Americans: What is the Price of the Commons?”

To make a horrible situation worse, Mount Holly has been knocking down row homes as they have been acquired while they are still attached to inhabited homes. The reckless demolitions have caused serious damage to privately owned homes, leading to structural damage, mold infestations and damage to utilities.

Last week, a court ruled that the demolitions may continue through the holidays, with little to no additional protections provided to the property owners.

“This abuse of eminent domain in Mount Holly is emblematic of the serious shortcoming in New Jersey’s eminent domain law,” said Walsh. “Eminent domain has been threatened or used for private development in at least 123 municipalities across the Garden State during the past decade. It’s time for the Legislature to intervene and finally bring a stop to this abuse of power—before it’s too late for the remaining homeowners in the Gardens.”