Skip to comments.Will the Government Take Your Home?
Posted on 08/14/2006 12:55:11 PM PDT by stainlessbanner
Joy and Carl Gamble bought an English stucco house in Norwood, Ohio, in 1969. They raised two children there and worked seven days a week in their small grocery store to pay off the mortgage. We had the house fixed up just the way we liked it, Carl says. When we retired, we planned to sit down and enjoy it.
But now the Gambles live in their daughters basement. Their house stands vacant in the weedy field that was their neighborhoodseized by the city and transferred to a developer who wants to build shops, offices and condominiums.
In Long Branch, N.J., Denise Hoagland, 39, has an endless view of the Atlantic Ocean from the cottage she and her husband, Lee, bought 13 years ago. Their garden blooms with so many flowers that their three daughters call home the place where the butterflies fly. But Long Branch wants to take their home and about 35 other properties so a developer can build luxury condos. Its theft, Denise says. Its legalized theft.
Technically, it is a forced sale, because the government has to pay for the property. And it is legal: In June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state and local governments can seize homes to make way for private development. The decision in Kelo v. City of New London triggered a sort of government land-grab.
In the one year since Kelo, more than 5,700 homes, businesses and even churches were threatened with seizure for private development, according to the nonprofit Institute for Justice (IJ), and at least 350 were condemned or authorized for condemnation. By comparison, about 10,000 were similarly threatened or taken over from 1998 through 2002.
Government always has had the power to force the sale of private property for public usea process known as eminent domain. But what is public use?
Historically, it meant highways, railroads, schools and sweeping urban-renewal projects, such as the redevelopment of the Baltimore waterfront. But Kelo made clear that middle-class homes could be replaced with malls, offices, luxury homesanything that might increase tax revenue.
Its a blatant example of reverse Robin Hoodtaking homes from the poor and the middle-income and giving them to the rich, says Scott Bullock, the IJ attorney who argued (and lost) Kelo.
The fact is, a shopping mall does usually produce more taxes than a house, says IJ attorney Dana Berliner. An office building does produce more taxes than a church. But if thats the rulethat anyones home can be taken away from them because something else will produce more taxesthen no ones home is safe.
But Kelo also has sparked a backlash. In the past year, more than two dozen states introduced or passed legislation and constitutional amendments to stop what critics call eminent domain abuse. Even the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill aimed to restrict eminent domain. Residents also are fighting back through courts of law and public opinion.
In Norwood, the Gambles and two other property owners represented by IJ brought their case to the Ohio Supreme Court. (At press time, the court had yet to rule.) [See editors note below.] In Long Branch, two dozen residents, also working with IJ, are suing to stop their neighborhood from being replaced with 185 condominiums. And in Lakewood, Ohio, my hometown, the people of Scenic Park waged such a successful public campaign three years ago that voters spared their homes from being taken.
In each city, the process unfolded almost identically: A private developer, with the governments backing, wanted a big piece of propertycliff-side homes with valley views in Lakewood, ocean-front cottages in Long Branchand tried to negotiate deals with each owner. When some refused to sell, the cities threatened to invoke eminent domain to clear the holdouts.
In order to do that, however, city officials first needed to declare the neighborhoods blighted. But the legal designation of blight bears little resemblance to a commonsense definition. In Lakewood, for example, Scenic Park is a charming neighborhood of older, well-kept homes. But because they lack such modern touches as attached two-car garages and central air-conditioning, the city deemed them blighteda standard by which more than 80 percent of Lakewood, even the former mayors home, would likewise be blighted.
We always bit on the word blight, says Julie Wiltse, 63, who helped neighbors distribute 20,000 fliers and sponsor a series of blight events: a Blighted Block Party, a Blighted Chili Cook-off, even a Blighted Groundhog Day (which predicted four more months of blight). TV cameras and newspaper reporters loved that stuff.
We were very successful in explaining to the community, If were blighted, youre blighted, Wiltse says.
Likewise, the Hoaglands neighborhood in Long Branch isnt blighted in any meaningful way. With one or two exceptions, its a few blocks of low-key bungalows where families have lived side-by-side for decades, even generations. The shabbiest touches, ironically, are the posters in nearly every homes windows with the words eminent domain abuse inside a red-slashed circle and the several homes that have been bought by the developer and boarded up. What the area doesnt have, however, are the $500,000 condos or the restaurants with $12 hamburgers that were built immediately south of the neighborhood.
When they want to revitalize, says William Giordano, 41, whose great-grandfather built his house, suddenly were not good enough to live here.
The city has put prices on the houses it wants to take: $400,000 for the Hoaglands house, $374,000 for Lori Ann Vendettis, $410,000 for the home her parents built across the street and $325,000 for Anna DeFarias tiny gray cottage. Those might sound like hefty sums, but not on the Jersey shore. I cant get anything in Long Branch for three and a quarter, DeFaria says, let alone an ocean view.
But whats money? The memories are here, says Lori Ann Vendetti. They can come in with a million dollars, two millionwe wont take it. A lot of people think were bluffing, that everyone has a price. The Vendettis dont have a price.
Neither do the Gambles. Most of the properties that the Gambles and their Norwood neighbors owned6 9 out of 75were sold to the developer, who was required by the city to pay at least 25 percent above market value. Three others later settled with the developer. Then the city used eminent domain to claim the last three, concluding that the neighborhood was deteriorating, based on a study that was paid for by the developer.
Tim Burke, a lawyer for the city, argues that the government had to clear the holdouts, especially because there were so many other property owners who had agreed to sell. Would Norwood have used eminent domain if it had to acquire 69 of the properties? Clearly not, he says.
As Burke explains it, Norwood is an old industrial town that lost its industry and a third of its population. The city needs to redevelop to generate new revenues, and clearly most of the Gambles neighbors werent opposed. When youre a community like Norwood, youve got to be concerned with the entire citizenry, Burke says. And, yeah, there are going to be instances where, in order to better the lives of the many, the property of the few will have to be taken.
But what if youre one of those few? That this is happening here, says Joy Gamble, in the land of the people, for the people, by the people The thought trails off, and she just shakes her head.
What You Can Do
Stay informed: Eminent domain projects usually are years in the makingbut quietly and without public reference to eminent domain. Watch for words like redevelopment, says Scott Bullock, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice.
Make noise: March, rally, call local newspapers and TV stations. Try to turn community opinion to your side.
Ask for help: Several organizations may take your case for free. But even if you have to hire your own lawyer, you can fight City Hall.
Pester your state legislators now: Some states already have passed new rules that restrict eminent domain.
Fight for the best deal: If you simply cannot save your home, make it as expensive as possible. An analysis by The Cincinnati Enquirer revealed that owners in Norwood, Ohio, were paid on average twice the appraised value of their homes. However, the ones who fought got even more.
On July 26, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the city of Norwood can't use eminent domain to take Carl and Joy Gambles home solely for economic development. The United States Supreme Court had ruled previously that there is nothing unconstitutional about a government taking private property, with just compensation, solely for economic development but left it to state courts to decide whether such takings violated their own state constitutions. The Ohio Supreme Court further rejected Norwoods claim that it also could use eminent domain to eliminate the Gambles neighborhood because it was a deteriorating area. The court ruled that the phrase deteriorating area was too vaguethat it was, in effect, a standardless standard. The court ruling means the development group has to return the house to the Gambles. Our state supreme court did what the the U.S. Supreme Court did not do: It protected our home, Joy Gamble told reporters.
Eventually, they're going to pull this sh*t on the wrong person, and it's going to end in bloodshed.
Kudos to those brave souls who are fighting to save their homes.
They can have my house for ... oh, ten million dollars. That way I can afford to buy something similar, and live comfortably from my interest income. If not, they can go pound sand!
They need to make up some stuff to pass the place off as an historical landmark! Or tell them there are endangered owls there.
Eventually, they're going to pull this sh*t on the wrong person, and it's going to end in bloodshed.
I was thinking the same thing. Did We suddenly become a Communist country where the state owns everything?
FEWFC is doing it right now.
Technically, it is a forced sale, because the government has to pay for the property. And it is legal: In June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state and local governments can seize homes to make way for private development. The decision in Kelo v. City of New London triggered a sort of government land-grab.The nice thing about the decision is, it opens up public officials even more to bribery and corruption. s'cool.
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