Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · October 12, 2023

GULFPORT, Miss.—For a century, many Black residents of Ocean Springs have lived in a neighborhood nestled next to the tracks, the Railroad District. But thanks to revitalization of the city’s nearby downtown, homes that were once looked over are being eyed for redevelopment. In April of this year, the city designated this neighborhood and other areas it sees as ripe for redevelopment as “blighted” slums.

But none of the property owners—people who inherited homes, business owners, and a church that is a pillar of the Black community—were told that the city was branding their property in a way that could lead to eminent domain. By the time they found out, it was past the deadline to challenge blight designations laid out in state law. Now, several property owners are teaming with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a non-profit public interest law firm, to challenge the blight designations in a new federal lawsuit.

“Ocean Springs cannot brand neighborhoods as slums in secret,” said IJ Senior Vice President and Litigation Director Dana Berliner. “Depriving people of their property rights without any process is a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution. Ocean Springs should be happy to have such a closely-knit, warm community. It shouldn’t try to destroy it.”

Cynthia Fisher has lived in the Railroad District for 70 years. In 1980, she moved around the corner from the home she grew up in and inherited after her mother passed away. That home is now declared blighted. Her daughter lives in the home today and Cynthia has no intention of selling. Yet the blight label could allow the city to force her to sell one day.

“This neighborhood means everything to me,” said Cynthia. “We’re proud of our neighborhood and while we may not have a lot of money to put in our homes, we keep them well. What the city did, labeling our neighborhood as a slum without telling us, was wrong.”

Other Ocean Springs property owners have joined the lawsuit with Cynthia. Faye Payton and Ed Williams are fellow homeowners in the Railroad District. The Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, formed in 1891 and the center of the neighborhood, owns several properties labeled blighted. Bob Zellner owns Zellner’s Import Auto Services, which is located in another area of the city also designated as blighted.

Under Mississippi law, property owners have only 10 days to challenge a blight designation. The city made the designations in April, but property owners only began to learn about the labels in August, when the city released a 171-page redevelopment plan on its Facebook page. While the city paused passage of the redevelopment plan after vigorous opposition and said residential property owners could opt out of the plan, there has been no indication that the blight designations would be reconsidered.

Before the government can take away your life, liberty, or property, it must first give you due process: fair and meaningful procedure. Ocean Springs’ secret process for designating properties as slums violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“The government cannot take away life, liberty, or property without a fair and open process,” said IJ Attorney Suranjan Sen. “We want to stop what is happening in Ocean Springs, and also ensure that no city in Mississippi can treat property owners like this in the future.”

The Institute for Justice protects property rights nationwide and argued on behalf of homeowners in the last major U.S. Supreme Court case regarding eminent domain, Kelo v. New London. IJ will be arguing at the Supreme Court this term in DeVillier v. Texas, a case about a family farm flooded out following highway renovations. IJ is also currently defending Georgia homeowners facing eminent domain to take land for a private railway.