Is it right for the government to take your property for the benefit of another private party? Voters across the nation were outraged last summer when the Supreme Court said “yes” to that question in its infamous Kelo decision. Missouri’s elected officials reacted by pledging to change Missouri law to ensure that Show-Me state residents’ property would be secure.
But judging from the legislation passed last week and expected to be signed by the governor, they didn’t mean it. True, the legislation does impose some new requirements on cities seeking to take peoples’ homes, but it does almost nothing to prevent the use of eminent domain to benefit one private party at the expense of another. If the governor signs the legislation this week, property rights in Missouri will still be in danger.
Our legislators seem to think that private property is an issue of money and paperwork. Municipalities exercising eminent domain must pay an extra 25 percent if they take your primary residence, and an extra 50 percent if the home has been in your family for 50 years or more. And the law requires more public input, more negotiations, and more court oversight before a taking can occur.
Such tweaks miss the point. Fundamentally, property rights are about equal rights before the law. Private property places the smallest homeowner on an equal footing with the largest corporation. If the company wants the homeowner’s land, he must pay a price the homeowner is willing to accept or look for land elsewhere.
In contrast, when the law permits eminent domain for private profit, ordinary property owners become subject to the whim of the powerful and well-connected. We recently saw a clear example of the dangers of eminent domain abuse in Clayton, where the Board of Aldermen is in the process of condemning five small downtown retail establishments to make room for the expansion of Centene Corp’s corporate headquarters. The city justifies the taking on the basis that the retail establishments are “blighted,” despite the fact that downtown Clayton is one of the most prosperous neighborhoods in the St. Louis metro area.
“Blight” has become a catch-all term that allows municipal leaders to condemn anyone’s land. It was the pretext under which the city of Sunset Hills condemned properties in its doomed re-development plan, which collapsed last fall when it was discovered the developer couldn’t finance the project. And it was the justification given by St. Louis alderman Tom Bauer when he sought to condemn several homes and businesses to make room for a QuikTrip gas station—a plan that led his constituents to recall him.
Yet the legislation being sent to the governor this week wouldn’t have done a thing to stop any of those three abuses. “Blight” takings are still permitted, and no change has been made to the current “anything goes” rules for defining blight. Under the current rules, cities commission blight studies by friendly consulting companies that invariably give cities the answers they’re looking for. Such studies often cite trivial problems such as broken drain spouts, declining tax revenues, or windows that are too small for the latest fire code. Amazingly, some studies even cite poor upkeep of public streets and sidewalks as evidence of blight, even though those are the responsibility of the city government that sought the blight designation in the first place.
Even worse, the new legislation continues to allow land to be taken if a “preponderance” of a proposed redevelopment area is blighted. That means that the city can take your home even if it’s in perfect condition, as long as some of your neighbors haven’t been maintaining their properties. In Sunset Hills, several meticulously maintained homes were condemned because their owners happened to live in a neighborhood the city government considered “blighted.”
Missouri’s elected officials have failed to keep the promises they made last summer to pass meaningful restrictions on eminent domain abuse. Instead, they passed legislation that is little more than window dressing, in the hopes that that would satisfy voters’ demands for stronger property rights. Show-Me state voters shouldn’t be fooled by that kind of legislative sleight of hand.
Timothy B. Lee is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute.