Building Empires, Destroying Homes

New York is perhaps the worst state in the nation when it comes to eminent domain abuse—the forcible acquisition of private property by the government for private development. Over the past decade, a host of government jurisdictions and agencies statewide have condemned or threatened to condemn homes and small businesses for the New York Stock Exchange, The New York Times, IKEA, Costco, and Stop & Shop. An inner-city church lost its future home to eminent domain for commercial development that never came to pass. Scores of small business owners have been threatened with seizure for a private university in Harlem and for office space in Queens and Syracuse. Older homes were on the chopping block near Buffalo, simply so newer homes could be built. From Montauk Point to Niagara Falls, every community in the Empire State is subject to what the U.S. Supreme Court has accurately called the “despotic power.” This enthusiasm for eminent domain is encouraged by the New York courts, which habitually rubber-stamp condemnations and seem to consider any kind of private undertaking a public use.

But things may be changing. This month, New York’s highest court will hear a case that could at last place limits on the state’s condemning authorities when they seek to take private property for someone else’s private development.

This report is designed to serve as a resource to anyone trying to understand the complex and byzantine laws that allow eminent domain abuse to happen and the issues surrounding the government’s power to take property. It presents both the law and the stories that make up New York’s reprehensible history of eminent domain abuse, but it also suggests solutions the courts and the Legislature can implement to ensure everyone keeps what is rightfully theirs to own.

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