Arlington, Va.—Kick out the poor, bring in the rich. Those are the goals of a bogus “blight” declaration that National City, Calif., is expected to move forward tonight. In renewing a declaration that two-thirds of National City (a predominantly Hispanic San Diego suburb) is “blighted,” the city government’s goal is not to remove blight, but rather to remove the poor and minorities who have managed to purchase property and replace them with the rich and politically powerful.
But National City did not count on the Institute for Justice (IJ)—a public interest law firm with a long and successful history of fighting eminent domain for private gain—taking up the cause of National City property owners and fighting back.
On June 19, 2007, the Community Youth Athletic Center (CYAC)—a gym in National City that helps low-income, minority kids stay off the streets and avoid gangs—announced it would join the Institute for Justice to challenge the decision by National City, Calif., to target the gym, as well as many other properties, for eminent domain.
“We’re going to fight the city’s outrageous plan to take away our gym so a developer can build condos for rich people,” said Victor Nuñez, vice president of the CYAC and a San Diego County Deputy District Attorney. “We’re doing what we teach our kids to do; we’re standing up for what is right.”
“With its bogus blight designation, National City is laying the groundwork to destroy flourishing small businesses, churches and service organizations like the CYAC,” warned Jeff Rowes, a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice. “Each of these pieces of property may not be put to its so-called ‘highest economic use,’ but each provides the owner with the opportunity for a better life. If that property is taken, only to be handed over to someone else with more wealth and political influence, these industrious but poor individuals will lose their American Dream.”
What is happening in National City is part of a nationwide trend of eminent domain abuse where the vulnerable are victimized. In a study released today analyzing U.S. Census data, the Institute for Justice documented that eminent domain abuse disproportionately takes land from the poor, less-educated and minorities across the nation. The study, “Victimizing the Vulnerable: The Demographics of Eminent Domain Abuse,” vindicates the warning offered by former-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote in her dissent in the infamous Kelo case that eminent domain would be used “to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more.”
The first-of-its-kind national study systematically examined U.S. Census data to determine the demographic profile of people subject to eminent domain abuse in 184 projects. It found that 58 percent of those targeted with the threat of eminent domain were minority residents and their annual median income was less than $19,000. Moreover, people living in areas targeted for eminent domain for private development are significantly poorer and more likely to be minority than people elsewhere in their own cities. The report is available at https://ij.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1528&Itemid=194.
Not only does National City hope to kick out current property owners and replace them with wealthier ones, but it also plans to take on more debt. A “blight” designation enables a government redevelopment agency to incur huge debts and capture property taxes that would otherwise go to the county. California redevelopment agencies collectively owe more than $60 billion and are the exclusive recipients of property taxes on more than $380 billion worth of property. Overall, redevelopment agencies capture about 10 percent of all property taxes collected in California.
Demonstrating one of the many ways the blight declarations are unconstitutionally stacked against property owners, National City’s City Council did not even release any of the documents necessary to challenge the blight designation until just a few days before tonight’s Council hearing, making it impossible for property owners to effectively challenge what the city is doing at the meeting—the only opportunity the law provides for them to do so.
“California’s new eminent domain statute must be vigorously enforced by the courts if the poor and ultimately all Californians are to be protected from eminent domain abuse,” said Dana Berliner, an Institute for Justice senior attorney. “The courts must allow property owners the opportunity to review and challenge so-called blight designations. That is what this case is all about.”
“If you believe eminent domain is needed for redevelopment, look around you; virtually everything in America has been built without it,” concluded Rowes. “Development can be done, but it shouldn’t be done through government force. It should be done through private negotiation.”
This Saturday, June 23, 2007, marks the second anniversary of the Kelo ruling.
The backlash against the Kelo ruling was swift and nearly unanimous. Public opinion polls consistently show that more than 80 percent of Americans disapprove of using eminent domain for private gain, as is going on in National City. Already 41 states, including California, have reformed their statutes to some degree to afford property owners greater protection against the wrongful seizure of their property. The two state supreme courts that have squarely considered the Kelo question unequivocally rejected the use of eminent domain for economic development.
The California Supreme Court has not taken a case in three decades addressing statutory and constitutional limitations on redevelopment. With so many Californians, many of them economically disadvantaged and minority, facing gross eminent domain abuse, the time is ripe for the California Supreme Court to consider this important issue and rein in this awesome power of government.