Tag: eminent domain

A Million Homes Taken Since Kelo

It has been just over a decade since the Supreme Court decided in Kelo v. New London that local governments can take private property by eminent domain under a very broad reading of “public use”.  Cato held an event earlier this year to examine the legal impact of Kelo, featuring remarks from George Mason Law Professor Ilya Somin based upon his recent book, The Grasping Hand.  Not only has Kelo spawned widespread public backlash, but its also given birth to renewed interest by legal scholars.  As an economist, I am a little more interested in the direct impact on families.

Unfortunately, I have had no luck finding a database of all U.S. takings.  The American Housing Survey (AHS), conducted by the Census Bureau every two years, does, however, offer some estimates.  For survey respondents who moved within the previous year, the AHS asks respondents the “main reason” for leaving their previous unit.  One option offered is “government displacement”. For the survey years since Kelo, the average has been 109,000 households who state that government action displaced them from their previous home.  If that average holds for non-survey years, then a good estimate is that just over a million households have been displaced by government action since Kelo

Donald Trump, Eminent Domain, and the Widow’s House

Washington Post on Donald Trump and Vera CokingThree weeks ago I wrote in the Guardian about Donald Trump’s years-long effort to use eminent domain to take Vera Coking’s Atlantic City house, along with two nearby small businesses, in order to build a limousine parking lot for his Trump Plaza hotel. Coking’s house may not have been paradise, but as Joni Mitchell would say, Trump wanted to pave it and put up a parking lot.

Today the Washington Post splashes the story of the billionaire and the widow across the front of its Style section. It’s a story that deserves further attention.

As I wrote:

For more than 30 years Vera Coking lived in a three-story house just off the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. Donald Trump built his 22-story Trump Plaza next door. In the mid-1990s Trump wanted to build a limousine parking lot for the hotel, so he bought several nearby properties. But three owners, including the by then elderly and widowed Ms Coking, refused to sell.

As his daughter Ivanka said in introducing him at his campaign announcement, Donald Trump doesn’t take no for an answer.

Trump turned to a government agency – the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) – to take Coking’s property. CRDA offered her $250,000 for the property – one-fourth of what another hotel builder had offered her a decade earlier. When she turned that down, the agency went into court to claim her property under eminent domain so that Trump could pave it and put up a parking lot.

Trump consistently defended his use of eminent domain. He told John Stossel, “Everybody coming into Atlantic City sees this terrible house instead of staring at beautiful fountains and beautiful other things that would be good.” Later, after the Supreme Court upheld the use of eminent domain to take property from one owner for the benefit of another private owner, he told Neil Cavuto, 

“I happen to agree with it 100%. if you have a person living in an area that’s not even necessarily a good area, and … government wants to build a tremendous economic development, where a lot of people are going to be put to work and … create thousands upon thousands of jobs and beautification and lots of other things, I think it happens to be good.”

Manuel Roig-Franzia of the Post adds lots of colorful detail to the story. He notes how the Institute for Justice represented Coking in court – and won. “In the long melodrama that is Trump’s business career, the house in Atlantic City is the place where all the billionaire’s money and all the billionaire’s men couldn’t keep a 5-foot-3 widow from whupping him”–with the government on his side and IJ on hers.

Supporting Individual Rights, Opposing Eminent Domain Abuse

A recent blogpost published by Doug Kendall of the Constitutional Accountability Center (with whom we sometimes work with on op-eds and briefscriticized Cato’s involvement in Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action as cowardly, and inconsistent with our ideals. While Cato has great respect for any organization that, like the CAC, works “to preserve the rights and freedoms of all Americans,” their criticism of our brief is baseless, and grossly mischaracterizes Cato’s position in the case and track record generally. 

While I’m wary of misrepresenting the post through over-simplification, it can be boiled down to the following: 

  1. Mount Holly is a case about eminent domain;
  2. Pro-property rights groups (including Cato) have a history of “howling” against eminent domain;
  3. Those groups’ failure to argue against eminent domain in this case (and their support of the Township of Mount Holly), is inconsistent with their previous stance on property rights, and evinces a lack of moral courage;
  4. That failure can be explained because this case is also about civil rights and equality, and conservative groups hate equality, and live to help the state further oppress the downtrodden masses. 

 CAC’s criticism stems from an incorrect framing of the case at hand:

an important case out of Mount Holly, New Jersey, that involves Fair Housing Act (FHA) claims in the context of an effort by Mount Holly Township to use eminent domain to redevelop its only predominately minority community—and in the process, displace and raze the homes of its residents.

While that description is accurate in that the case is important, originates in Mount Holly, and concerns the applicability of the Fair Housing Act to a redevelopment plan, the case before the Supreme Court has nothing to do with eminent domain. The question to be argued before high court couldn’t be plainer: “Whether disparate impact claims are cognizable under the Fair Housing Act.”

It’s surprising that CAC would make such a basic mistake about the case, given that they filed a brief in the case, supporting the Mount Holly residents (a brief which makes no mention of eminent domain – at all).

“Eminent domain” refers to a specific way that the government can acquire private property against the will of the owner. So far, Mount Holly Township hasn’t resorted to eminent domain. Of the 329 properties that the township wants to include in the redevelopment plan, it has been able to acquire all but 70 of them through voluntary sales. If those remaining 70 owners – some of whom are parties to the case – were to challenge any attempts to expropriate their homes, Cato would be first in line to file a brief in their support, probably joined by those “howling”  pro-property groups like the Institute for Justice and Pacific Legal Foundation. (Sadly, it’s unlikely that we would garner CAC’s support, because the group has “long supported the reasonable use of eminent domain for redevelopment purposes.”)

No, this case isn’t about eminent domain because the residents aren’t challenging the township’s acquisition of property, but what it intends to do with that property. In a nutshell, the plaintiffs argue that the Fair Housing Act – which forbids governments and private individuals from refusing “to sell or rent … or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin” – bars not just intentional discrimination like restrictive covenants, but also any action that, even if entirely neutral and colorblind,  has a “disproportionate impact” on the ability of members of a protected class to buy or rent a home. They argue not that Mount Holly is intentionally discriminating against minority residents, but that the increase in property values as a result of redevelopment would effectively price the poor out of the neighborhood – and that counts as discrimination because the poorer residents are disproportionately drawn from minority groups

Cato opposes that theory of law generally, for the same reason that we oppose governmental abuse of eminent domain: we stand firmly against attempts by the government to control how people may dispose of their property. A homeowner should be able to sell his house for whatever price he thinks fair – without worrying that if his asking price is too high, he’ll be accused of racism and forced to defend himself in court. Our position in Mount Holly is the product of the reasoned and consistent application of well-articulated liberal principles, not “cowardice.”

As a closing note, we take issue with the implication that Cato “detests civil rights statutes.” Cato supports laws that protect individual freedom and opposes those that don’t. We may disagree with CAC on whether a law falls in the first or second category, regardless of whether it’s a “civil rights” statute or otherwise, but make no mistake that we support individual civil (and other) rights.

Indeed, we believe that the first and foremost duty of civil rights legislation (and constitutions) is to protect citizens from undue state interference with their daily lives and liberties. A reading of the FHA that embraces disparate impact claims doesn’t protect individuals from the state but instead represents an expansion of state interference. Behavior that was once lawful – selling your home for whatever price you wish – would become sanctionable. Disparate impact theory holds private individuals responsible not for personal bigotry, or the direct consequences of their actions, but for economic realities beyond their control – and that makes no one freer, nor more equal.

Update: Repeating what happened in the previous disparate-impact FHA case, Magner v. Gallagher, this case has apparently settled. The only question now is what the administration did to keep this issue away from the Supreme Court again. 

Further update: A couple of readers familiar with the facts on the ground in Mount Holly point out that while it’s technically correct that Mount Holly “hasn’t resorted to eminent domain,” the town’s redevelopment plan is indeed all-too-typical of eminent-domain abusers. That is, while not employing eminent domain – no condemnation proceedings have (yet) been filed – the town threatened to use it and then claimed “voluntary” sales when the homeowners capitulated. The redevelopment authority has represented that the incentives it offered for relocation were greater than what homeowners would’ve gotten from the eminent domain process – that alas is probably true, because the compensation paid for government takings is rarely “just” – but of course they would’ve had to sweeten the deal even more if they couldn’t threaten eminent domain in the first place. In other words, as we and our pro-property-rights allies have long argued, the ultimate solution is to reverse Kelo v. New London and take away the government’s ability to forcibly transfer property from one private party to another. If such eminent-domain-abuse claims aren’t foreclosed by the Mount Holly settlement, I suggest that the town’s residents hire IJ to litigate them. Cato would look forward to filing an amicus brief in support.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Gabriel Latner.

Eminent Domain for a Soccer Stadium?

Taxpayers in the District of Columbia have agreed – well, their agreement has been attested to by the mayor – to pony up $150 million to build a new stadium for D.C. United, the Major League Soccer team owned by Indonesian media magnate Erick Thohir. And just in case money isn’t enough to get the job done, the city administrator has made clear that the mayor has other tools in his kit:

A top District official reiterated Wednesday that the city is prepared to seize land in court to build a new soccer stadium after questions emerged over the ownership of a key plot needed for the project backed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray and D.C. United’s owners.

City Administrator Allen Y. Lew said the District was ready to exercise eminent domain should it be unable to come to terms with the current owners of the proposed site. “That’s always out there, that the mayor has the power to do that,” he said at a news conference Wednesday. “We’d like to work this out in an amicable way.”

Eminent domain. That is, taking land by force. For a soccer stadium. 

I am reminded of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s scathing dissent in the case of Kelo v. New London:

Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded–i.e., given to an owner who will use it in a way that the legislature deems more beneficial to the public–in the process….

The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory….

Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result.

The Founders may well not have intended this perverse result. But alas, O’Connor was writing in dissent. Five justices of the Supreme Court upheld the taking of Susette Kelo’s home to give it to Pfizer. And now, the owners of the Super Salvage scrap yard know that “nothing is to prevent the State” from taking their property to benefit “citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process.”

It’s one thing to argue that the Founders intended to give the government the power to take private property “for public use,” such as a military installation, a road, or a school. But for a corporate office park? Or a soccer stadium? The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result.

Using Eminent Domain to Personally Benefit the Mayor Is Unconstitutional

One of the biggest dangers of not providing adequate constitutional protections for private property is that public officials can misuse their power to take property for private gains. Government actors, after all, have an incentive to act in a way that maximizes political gains and minimizes costs, so without adequate protection from the courts, they can be expected to use eminent to take private property for political (or even personal) benefit.

In 2005, in the now infamous case of Kelo v. City of New London, the Supreme Court unfortunately eroded the protections of the “public use” portion of the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause — “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation” — by ruling that the potential for increased tax revenue from a large corporation can count as a “public use.” Suzette Kelo’s house was thus taken and given to Pfizer (which ended up not doing anything with the land).

It’s hard to imagine that government abuse of the Takings Clause could get any worse than that, but one such unfortunate case has arisen in Guam — which, as a U.S. territory, is covered by the Constitution. Artemio Ilagan owns and operates an apartment building in Agana, Guam. His neighbors, Engracia and Felix Ungacta, own an adjoining, residential lot that once lacked access to a road. Unfortunately for Mr. Ilagan, Mr. Ungacta was also the mayor of Agana when the city took a parking lot from Mr. Ilagan and gave it to Mayor Ungacta.

When challenged, the city claimed that the taking was done in accordance with a post-World War II “economic development” plan — the “Agana Plan” — that was enacted to reconfigure irregular lot lines in Agana. At the time of the taking (1981), the Agana Plan had not been used for seven years and, during the years it was used, was never used to take any lots. Moreover, the Plan has not been used in the 30 years since the taking of Mr. Ilagan’s lot.

The Guam trial court held the taking unconstitutional, but Guam’s Supreme Court reversed the holding by purportedly applying Kelo’s standard of judicial deference. Mr. Ilagan is now petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case, asking the Court whether it wants to allow other courts to use Kelo to cross the final bridge in eviscerating the Takings Clause — the blatantly pretextual taking of private property to give it to a public official.

Cato has joined the National Federation of Independent Business, 10 other organizations, and a group of constitutional and property law professors, on an amicus brief arguing that the Court should take the case in order to clarify, if not overrule, the broad language of Kelo. Kelo itself says that the government may not “take property under the mere pretext of a public purpose, when its actual purpose was to bestow a private benefit.”

In Kelo, taking the property as part of an “economic development plan” was held to constitute a public purpose. Here, however, the “economic development plan,” was clearly a pretext to take property to benefit a known private party who just “happened” to also be the mayor. We point out that, despite the Court’s distaste with “pretextual takings” articulated in Kelo, courts across the country are split over what a pretextual taking is. Some courts have even ruled out the possibility of their existence. Yet, from the misuse of “blight” condemnations—a designation often used to tear down old neighborhoods for the purposes of gentrification—to situations like Mr. Ilagan’s, pretextual takings occur far too often.

The egregious case of Ilagan v. Ungacta is a perfect vehicle for the Court to clarify the concept of a pretextual taking and to bring some semblance of coherence back to a vital constitutional provision. More on our brief from Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Public Financing of Vikings Stadium a Bad Deal for Fans, Taxpayers

The collusion between big business and big government that fleeces the rest of us has struck again – Tim Carney, iMessage your office – this time in the sports world. 

Minnesota governor Mark Dayton recently signed the midnight deal that state lawmakers struck with the owners of the state’s football team, the Minnesota Vikings, to build the team a new stadium.  This caused plenty of celebration in Minneapolis and elsewhere across the Gopher State.  Alas, the hangover is about to come for taxpayers regardless of their gridiron allegiance or level of fandom.

As former Cato legal associate (and Minnesotan) Nick Mosvick and I write in the Huffington Post, these stadium deals hurt most fans:

That’s because they lead to increased taxes and higher prices, squeezing the average fan for the benefit of owners and sponsors.  And that’s not even counting the overwhelming majority of taxpayers, regardless of fandom, who never set foot in these gladiatorial arenas.

Let’s look at this particular deal.  The stadium costs $975 million on paper, with over half coming from public funds, $348 million from the state and $150 million from Minneapolis—not through parking taxes or other stadium-related user fees, but with a new city sales tax.  In return, the public gets an annual $13 million fee and the right to rent out the stadium on non-game-days.

Vikings ownership, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and local politicians make a typical pitch for the deal: the stadium will attract investment to the area; local establishments will see a rise in game-day sales of $145 million; jobs will be created, including 1,600 in construction worth $300 million ($187,500 per job?!); tax revenues will increase $26 million; property values will rise; and, of course, the perennially underachieving team’s fortunes will improve.

Such arguments are always trotted out for these sweetheart deals, but the evidence regarding the economic effects of publicly financed stadiums consistently tells a different story.  For example, Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys performed an exhaustive study of sports franchises in 37 cities between 1969 and 1996 and found no measurable impact on per-capita income.  The only statistically significant effects were negative ones because revenue gains were overshadowed by opportunity costs that politicians inevitably ignore.

An older study looked at 12 stadium areas between 1958 and 1987 and found that professional sports don’t drive economic growth.  A shorter-term study looked at job growth in 46 cities from 1990 to 1994 and found that cities with major league teams grew more slowly.  Even worse, taxpayers still service debt on now-demolished stadiums, including the $110 million that New Jersey still owes on the old Meadowlands and the $80 million that Seattle’s King County owes on the Kingdome.  And we shouldn’t forget that local governments often employ property-rights-trampling eminent domain to facilitate these money-squandering projects.

Read the whole thing.  It’s not a matter of ideology; we even quote Keith Olbermann approvingly!

The point is that these deals benefit team owners and the politicians who get to wrap themselves in team colors to the exclusion of taxpayers or fans (who are priced out of the games their increased taxes support).  If luxury stadiums were hugely profitable, why would the savvy businessmen who own the teams let the politicians in on the windfall?

Texas Court Rules For Eminent-Domain Critic

Good news from Texas, where a state appeals court has handed a major win to investigative journalist Carla Main, whose book Bulldozed: ‘Kelo,’ Eminent Domain, and the American Lust for Land took a critical look at the seizure of private land under eminent domain laws for purposes of urban redevelopment. Dallas developer H. Walker Royall didn’t like what Main wrote about his involvement in a Freeport, Texas marina project and proceeded to sue her, publisher Encounter Books (which I should note is also my own publisher on Schools for Misrule), and even liberty-minded law professor Richard Epstein over a dust jacket blurb Epstein had given for the book. (Earlier coverage of the suit here and here.)

A trial court had declined to dismiss Royall’s claims on summary judgment, but yesterday Judge Elizabeth Lang-Miers reversed in substantial part, ruling that Royall had failed to make the requisite showing that key passages in Bulldozed had in fact defamed him. The case is not yet over, but Institute for Justice senior attorney Dana Berliner, who argued for the defense, is understandably jubilant: “Walker Royall has failed in his attempt to use this frivolous defamation lawsuit as a weapon to silence his critics,” she said. Moreover, outrage at Royall’s suit contributed to Texas’s enactment this summer (joining 26 other states) of strong “anti-SLAPP” legislation aimed at curbing lawsuits intimidating speech. You can read the opinion here, and early coverage at Gideon Kanner’s blog, the Dallas Observer and D Magazine.