The nation was stunned in 2005 when the United States Supreme Court ruled that the United States Constitution allowed the City of New London, Conn., to force its citizens out of their homes simply because the city thought it could generate more taxes if their modest residences were replaced with luxury condominiums and high-end retail stores. The popular outrage against the Supreme Court’s decision resulted in a widespread effort (in which the Show-Me Institute’s director of policy, Jenifer Zeigler Roland, played a major role) to make sure that Kelo could not happen in other states.
Unfortunately, as has been demonstrated by a recent court decision, Missouri was among the states whose eminent domain reforms merely rearranged deck chairs on the Titanic. Unless the Missouri Supreme Court proved willing to restore the property rights guaranteed by the state’s Constitution, cities and agencies across the state could continue to take perfectly normal properties in order to give them away for the profit of a governmentally preferred owner. With last week’s unfortunate decision in City of Arnold v. Tourkakis, (and kudos to Nick for an excellent post on this topic) it seems unlikely that the Missouri Supreme Court is willing to prevent the eminent domain abuse that currently plagues this state.
This abandonment of property rights is deeply unsettling. As a nation and as individual states Americans adopted Bills of Rights in order to make sure that certain essential liberties would never be subject to restriction or elimination. Among those freedoms is the assurance that governments have no right to take away someone’s property unless it is required for the construction of a road or public building. The real-life consequences when the government does take someone’s property illustrate why this power mustbe tightly limited.
Eminent domain is rarely threatened against wealthy people or those who can fight back. Instead, the usual targets are communities composed of minorities, the poor, and/or the elderly. In the middle of the 20th century, cities so regularly used eminent domain against black neighborhoods that the practice was commonly referred to as "Negro removal." That offensive label eventually fell out of use, but poor black communities continue to be condemned far more frequently than white communities. A 1989 study estimated that of 10,000 families that Baltimore displaced in the name of removing blight, fully 90 percent were African-American. Mindy Fullilove, an expert on the impact of eminent domain on minority communities, estimates that more than 1,600 black neighborhoods have been destroyed nationwide.
But then there are elderly people. In Kelo v. New London, Wilhelmina Dery was an 87-year-old still living in her family home, in which she was born. All she wanted was to live out her final days in those beloved, familiar settings. She eventually did get her wish, but only because she died before the city got its chance to kick her out of her home.
In Norwood, Ohio, the city took the residence of Carl and Joy Gamble, an older couple who received their condemnation notice just days after they were finally able to retire. They were uprooted from the home in which they had raised their family and built their American Dream, and separated from their nearby family and friends, after which they moved into a small apartment with a daughter in Kentucky. After a grueling three-year legal war, the Ohio Supreme Court vindicated their rights, but the stress drove Carl to his grave and left Joy in such delicate health that she couldn’t return to the home she had sacrificed so much to save.
I was recently told about an elderly couple in Rolla who weren’t physically able to cope with a move when they were threatened with eminent domain. The wife had Alzheimer’s disease and the husband was terrified to complicate her dementia by moving her to an unfamiliar environment. Unmoved by their plight, the city tried to make it look like they were just holding out for more money. One councilmember said they should just move to a nursing home.
Someone’s home represents their stability and shelter, both in physical and emotional ways. It is the centering location in their life, the place to which they should be able to return each day and know that they have their own place in the world. These things are especially precious for people who can claim ownership of very little else. But rather than protecting the rights of these citizens, both courts and legislatures have been content to sacrifice their security in the name of "progress," or more coarsely so they can be replaced with a wealthier, "more desirable" class of people.
Eminent domain abuse is not just unconstitutional it is unjust, immoral, and abhorrent. And, assuming that Missouri’s lawmakers and courts will continue to stand by as more and more home and business owners are wrecked by these abuses, the people of this state will have no choice but to
amend the state Constitution in the hopes of restoring the security that should be an American birthright.