When the Supreme Court decided seven weeks ago in Kelo vs. New London to loosen constitutional restraints on local governments taking your house and selling it to Wal-Mart, it triggered a wave of public revulsion from New England to South Los Angeles. Ninety-three percent of Granite State residents in a University of New Hampshire poll opposed using eminent domain for private development. Legislators in 28 states have made at least preliminary noises about restricting the practice, with Alabama being first to enact a new law.
State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) has introduced a ballot initiative to, according to his website, "prohibit the [government] seizure of one person's property for the private gain of another." Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) cosponsored a successful amendment to stop federal Community Development Block Grants from going to any locale that doesn't prohibit eminent domain seizures for private development.
"It's like undermining motherhood and apple pie," Waters told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I mean, people's homes and their land ï¿½ it's very important, and it should be protected by government, not taken for somebody else's private use."
Yet Waters' folksy wisdom about Kelo proved too simple by half for some of her fellow liberal activists and Democratic politicians, who see the backlash as either a sneaky Republican plot or a prophylactic separating potential tax dollars from their grubbing hands.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) opposed Waters' amendment, arguing that the Supreme Court decision "is almost as if God has spoken." The New York Times editorial page, virtually alone among the country's newspapers, hailed the decision as "a welcome vindication of cities' ability to act in the public interest" and "a setback to the 'property rights' movement, which is trying to block government from imposing reasonable zoning and environmental regulations."
Locally, pols reveal their feelings through their continued addiction to state-sanctioned robbery.
In May, the Los Angeles City Council approved a $325-million project at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, including a fancy new 296-room W Hotel. "Glitz, glamour, jobs and housing — this project has it all," 13th District Councilman Eric Garcetti gushed two years ago. But he left out two other relevant elements: Taxpayer financing and the threat of eminent domain.
The project would displace, among other businesses, the Bernard Luggage store, which has stuck by the neighborhood through thick and mostly thin over the last 55 years. According to City News Service, at a City Council meeting Garcetti said the city would not use its powers of eminent domain to force property owners to sell, unless the developers were unable to reach a deal with the landowners.
In other words, the government won't take your property unless you refuse to sell. How comforting.
In California, private-property eminent domain transfers must be conducted under the legal cover of "blight," which has come to mean "prime real estate in a rapidly gentrifying area."
In downtown Alhambra, where city officials have been jealously eyeing the success of old towns in Pasadena and Monrovia, the "blight" includes the Museum of Contemporary Arab Art and 60 other businesses. All stand in the way of proposed luxury condos and up-market shops. Similar stories are percolating in places as diverse as Palmdale, La Puente and Newhall.
California City, in the Mojave Desert near Edwards Air Force Base, came up with a novel interpretation of blight to separate a landowner from some real estate coveted by Hyundai — it declared a patch of unused desert as "blighted."
So where is that Democratic Party concern for the "little guy" we've heard so much about? Subsumed by paranoia about the right. "The Kelo backlash is tempting, but it's wrong," warned Alyssa Katz in American Prospect Online. "In seeking to limit public power over urban planning, well-meaning community activists are lending strength to [the] conservative movement."
And we mustn't have that, even if it means razing an entire black neighborhood for a shopping mall that never gets built. That's exactly what happened in Indio in 1993, when more than 90 apartments and homes were bulldozed for an extension of the Indio Fashion Mall that never happened. Obscenely, the new owner of the property is pressuring the city to once again clear out two nearby churches to restart the project.
Eminent domain for private development is nothing more than a market shortcut and nothing less than government-sanctioned bullying of the people who least deserve it. Just ask the former residents of Chavez Ravine and Bunker Hill. If Democrats talk themselves into supporting this noxious practice only because Republicans oppose it, or because they aren't satisfied with the taxes generated by the mom-and-pop stores, they will get the electoral results they deserve.
Matt Welch is an associate editor for Reason magazine.