America was founded in opposition to feudal society. In a kingdom, people could use the land but not own it. It belonged to the king! Ownership was based on wealth, prestige and privilege. Eminent domain was right of kings to decide the fate of people and property. In the United States, the framers of the Constitution intended the government to protect the right of ownership because land was thought of as the product of labor. Life, liberty and the ownership of property were the intentions of the country's founders. Eminent domain was only to be used for the public good. In 1954, the use of eminent domain expanded from a narrow view of public good to an undefined public use. In the past, where it was used to take private property to build highways or to build and expand hospitals and universities, it is now being used for private development and profit at the expense of citizens' rights. The idea that a "man's home is his castle," although derivative of the ancient rights of kings, no longer holds true.
Through changes in the tax structure, protection of corporate interests and cronyism, government has created a welfare state that benefits the rich. Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, greed has become an American value promoted proudly. Prior to the Reagan years, the percentage of wealth held by the rich remained relatively the same for nearly 200 years of American history. Since that time the wealth of the rich has increased. The top 20% of Americans have had an increase from 81.3% to 84.4% share of wealth between 1983 and 2001(Wolff, 2004). Conversely, the poor and the middle class are experiencing the results of this reversal of fortunes. The bottom 40% of Americans' net worth decreased from .9% to .3% over the same time period (2004). Most recently, further changes in taxation ensure that wealth is protected.
The abuse of eminent domain is a means of changing the structure of wealth in this country. "Reverse Robin Hoods," sanctioned by the government, take property from the poor and the average American and give it to private developers. When government allows the use of eminent domain, communities are blighted or condemned. Blighting a community means that property value is no longer influenced by market forces. Developments happen without property being on the open market, so private developers can maximize their profit margin at the expense of previous owners.
The excuse that local governments have used is that these new developments "increase the tax base." Thus far, no studies have shown this to be the case! The theft of neighborhoods from current residents has nothing to do with increasing the tax base. It is "robbing the hood." Eminent domain is no longer used for the public good. It is a tool to benefit the few who make substantial profits while paying less tax themselves.
In urban neighborhoods, eminent domain displaces the poor from communities. Communities are composed of networks of families that have a rich history and vibrant culture that is created as generations grow up. Although buildings sometimes are in decay, the people who live there are not. Instead of redevelopment that benefits all members of these neighborhoods, eminent domain is used to remove those who are unwanted. Homes are taken from poor and moderate-income families (with minimal compensation because there is no market appraisal due to blighting). New homes are built which are beyond the means of those displaced.
In suburban areas, eminent domain is used to benefit big-box corporations, which gain rights to prime real estate at the expense of homeowners and small businesses. This abuse is happening all across America. In St. Louis several city neighborhoods are fighting developments that are using eminent domain. From far south city at Grand and Loughborough, to mid-city in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, to the Grand Center redevelopment, eminent domain abuse threatens residents. Residents in the suburban communities of Rock Hill, Sunset Hills, Arnold, Creve Coeur, Maplewood, Brentwood and St. Charles are fighting the same battles.
Although abuse of eminent domain is pervasive in cities across the United States, it is difficult to build unity between people whose focus is their homes or their businesses. There are many others threatened by the same issues but unity is obstructed by differences in race or class. In urban areas, the effect of eminent domain on African-American households can force moms and kids into less stable neighborhoods. In suburban communities threatened by commercial developments it is often white households that are forced to move without choice. Disparate communities that experience the same results of dislocation remain separated because of racial and economic differences. Eminent domain is abused for redevelopment, and is a divisive tool that takes advantage of moral crises within our society.
In thirty cities across the United States groups have held demonstrations against the abuse of eminent domain. The Supreme Court will hear Kelo vs. New London, brought by citizens in Connecticut. It is the first eminent domain case that has been heard since 1954. The Supreme Court will decide whether private property can be transferred to private developers for their own profit, and if so, whether the economic results of a transfer constitute "public use."
One of the most inalienable rights of Americans is being threatened the right to private property. Eminent domain abuse is helping create an American aristocracy with the power of kings. No one's home or business is safe. It is time that all Americans stand up for their constitutional rights. The rights gained by Americans more than 200 years ago as they fought against the tyranny of kings could be lost.
John Pachak has worked with families and children in the city of St. Louis for more than 25 years.
Anna Sturgis is both a social worker and a teacher working with low-income families in seven St. Louis neighborhoods and teaching at Sanford-Brown College.
Wolf, Edward. (2004). "Changes in Household Wealth in the 1980s and 1990s in the U.S." Working Paper No. 407. Levy Economics Institute and New York University, Annadale-on-Hudson, NY.
Brief Amici Curiae Mary Bugryn Dudko, et. al. Supreme Court of the United States No 04-108. Susette Kelo et. al., v. City of New London, Connecticut, et. al.