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Bulldozing the American Dream

Thursday, October 18, 2007

‘Urban renewal’ schemes that rely on eminent domain disproportionately harm the poor, writes TIMOTHY B. LEE.

Eminent DomainFor the first four decades of his life, Joseph Erondu lived the American dream. He moved to the United States from his native Nigeria in 1976, received a dentistry degree from Washington University, and opened a dental practice in the Gaslight Square neighborhood of St. Louis. At the time, the area was, in the words of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes.” But Erondu persevered. He brought a small measure of order to the community, and provided much-needed dental care to an underprivileged clientele that had trouble getting out to suburban dental offices. “Gaslight Square was his love,” says Erondu’s wife. “He and his children and I would pick up trash from around dilapidated buildings; he thought of it as a lifetime opportunity.”

Erondu was later thrilled to learn that the city was planning to redevelop the area—until he learned that he wasn’t welcome in the new Gaslight Square. St. Louis wound up acquiring his land using eminent domain, forcing Erondu to rebuild his practice from scratch in another neighborhood. Perhaps as a result of the stress, Dr. Erondu fell ill while his new practice was being constructed. He died on June 23rd, 2005, the same day the Supreme Court handed down its infamous Kelo decision.

Erondu’s property loss is a story that has been repeated across Missouri and across the United States. Entrepreneurs purchase property in a marginal neighborhood and struggle to build a viable business, only to have the city take their property and give it to a wealthier business with better political connections. Every time that happens, it sends a powerful message to future entrepreneurs that they should think twice before setting up shop in low-income communities.

That’s just one of the ways in which urban renewal policies designed to help the poor do just the opposite. Many urban planners argue that the power of eminent domain is needed to combat “blight” in urban areas. But closer examination shows that eminent domain only shifts the problems of poverty to another neighborhood, while destroying the social fabric that is essential for a genuine revitalization of poor neighborhoods. States that truly care about the welfare of their urban poor should prohibit the use of eminent domain for private urban redevelopment projects.

Meant to eliminate urban 'blight,' eminent domain only shifts the problems of poverty to other neighborhoods. In the process, it destroys the social fabric essential for genuine revitalization.

Consider the McRee Town neighborhood, which was one of the most notorious slums in St. Louis during the early 1990s. In 1998, the city began drawing up plans to “redevelop” the neighborhood by demolishing the existing housing stock and replacing it with more expensive single-family homes.

Local property owners and social advocates alike pleaded with city officials to spare well-maintained properties that were providing much-needed affordable housing. In a 2003 letter to The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Reverend Gerald J. Kleba, a Catholic priest whose parish included many McRee Town residents, charged that the redevelopment plan “moves hundreds of poor families from McRee Town into the larger city where hundreds of families with Section 8 vouchers already have no place to live.” In 2000, Jestene Bowen, a resident of one of the buildings slated for demolition, said, “I guess it’s good for the community.” But she worried that her $16,000 bus driver salary would “put me in an area that’s worse.”

The developer had originally said it would construct low-income housing to accommodate residents like Bowen. But the first homes have now been completed, and a quick glance at the builder’s website tells a different story: the cheapest homes are priced at $209,900, far beyond the financial reach of residents who had been struggling to pay rents as low as $275 per month. The Riverfront Times noted in 2003 that many residents had originally come to McRee Town after they “had been displaced by other neighborhood redevelopment efforts over the years.” With the McRee Town evictions, the cycle began all over again, further undermining poor residents’ sense that they had any control over their destinies.

Prohibiting the use of eminent domain for slum clearance would certainly be inconvenient for urban planners. But it would be good for low-income residents. It would preserve affordable housing and reassure entrepreneurs like Dr. Erondu that it’s safe to establish businesses in poor neighborhoods. Most important, it would force city officials to come up with redevelopment plans that are actually good for the residents of underprivileged neighborhoods, instead of merely evicting the city’s poorest residents to make room for wealthier ones.

Since Kelo, some states have moved decisively to protect property rights. But Missouri has not. In 2006, the state legislature passed a bill that made modest procedural changes to eminent domain law and increased the compensation paid to certain property owners. But the bill still allows land takings to fix “blight”—and the definition of blight is still so vague that it can be used to justify almost any property seizure. Only an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting property takings for private use will prevent the kinds of abuses that have occurred in Gaslight Square, McRee Town, and dozens of other Missouri communities.

Timothy B. Lee, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, is the coauthor of a new study from the Show-Me Institute on eminent domain abuse in Missouri.

Image credit: photo by flickr user Sister72.

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