Sunday, July 03, 2005

"The Supreme Court is telling us to trust our elected officials. That's a nice idea in concept, but a bad one in practice."

Court stunts dreams of ownership

July 3, 2005

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2005

My Inner Loop home is a block away from urban blight.

To the west are duplexes and fourplexes in various states of disrepair, home to renters with little means to improve their housing situation.

My home also is a block away from urban renewal.

To the east are well-maintained, owner-occupied single-family homes, a renovated two-story that sold for more than $250,000 and a new house built on a long-vacant lot.

My husband and I decided to invest our money, time and energy in our neighborhood, with an optimistic attitude.

The American Dream

The blight to the west was a growth opportunity, not a sign of encroaching decay.

The stability to the east was proof that the neighborhood could and would grow in value.

All we would have to do was update and maintain our home, pay our mortgage and taxes and keep the property as long as we wanted it.

That's the wealth-building strategy known as the American Dream. But now I'm not so sure if my neighbors and I — or any other American not living in a high-priced enclave or an upscale suburb — will be able to fulfill our dream.

The Supreme Court recently declined to change decades of established law that governments have the right to spur privately-financed economic growth by taking private property from unwilling sellers, as long as they pay just compensation for the property.

The court ruled, as it had before, that economic development is a legitimate "public use" that is protected by the Fifth Amendment's "eminent domain" clause, even if the property taken is not actually accessible to the public.

The five-person majority also said that despite earlier rulings that the removal of blight is a compelling reason for employing economic development as a public use, it's not a requirement.

As long as a municipality has "carefully formulated a development plan it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community, including but not limited to new jobs and increased tax revenue," it can take whatever land it deems necessary to achieve this purpose, the court said.

Hot air for inflated dreams

The majority specifically rejected as too burdensome the dissenting opinions that state and local elected and appointed officials should be required to prove that the benefits promised in the economic development plans would be realized.

Bottom line, the Supreme Court again said it's up to state and local governments to decide what curbs, if any, they will place on their power to take private property.

"In a way this ruling is about civil rights because it interferes with your right to own and keep your property," said Wilhelmina Leigh, a senior research analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies think tank in Washington. "It means you have to hope and trust in the goodness of other human beings that if you buy real estate that you will be allowed to keep it."

That's what worries me.

Developers almost always oversell their visions, and politicians almost always buy into those inflated plans.

What city doesn't want to revitalize downtown, create tourist attractions, lure or keep a sports team, or get a Fortune 500 company to open and expand offices?

In pursuit of these economic dreams, local politicians tend to sacrifice the financial stability of their most vulnerable constituents for public benefits that rarely trickle down to them.

A sordid past

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas quoted statistics that have led sociologists to call urban renewal programs of the past "Negro removal" efforts:

"Of all the families displaced by urban renewal from 1949 through 1963, 63 percent of those whose race was known were nonwhite, and of these families, 56 percent of nonwhites and 38 percent of whites had incomes low enough to qualify for public housing, which, however, was seldom available to them."

And in the case that set the urban blight standard, over 97 percent of the people forced to move from their homes by the "slum clearance" project were black.

That same information was cited in the friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of the NAACP and AARP.

"They won't be taking lands that have million-dollar homes on them," said Jason Freier, an author of the brief and Atlanta-based attorney. "Eminent domain disproportionately impacts the working class, minorities and the elderly."

A matter of trust

By not setting standards for how municipalities determine what is blight and economic development, the Supreme Court is telling us to trust our elected officials.

That's a nice idea in concept, but a bad one in practice.

We, the people, need to make sure our voices drown out those of developers in the discussions about this ruling.

Bills in the Texas Legislature calling for a constitutional amendment prohibiting eminent domain from being used for the primary purpose of economic development are scheduled for hearings Tuesday and Wednesday.

If a bill passes in the special session, voters will then get their say in the Nov. 8 election.

Giving us a chance to voice our opinion on this issue through a vote is a good start.

Some specifics, please

The Legislature could also make sure that when economic development is cited as a secondary reason for taking land, governments:

•Only use it to reverse and retard blight.

•Define blight using statistically sound measurements.

•Submit economic development plans to citizens for comments before making commitments to developers.

•Include in economic development plans an analysis of how the people whose land is being taken will or will not benefit from the changes.

A majority of the Supreme Court may not have wanted to tell elected local officials what to do when they exercise their right to use eminent domain, but it is each citizen's duty to do just that.

Shannon Buggs has completed the financial planning certificate program at the University of Houston. She welcomes comments and suggestions but cannot offer specific advice about individual circumstances. Contact her at .

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