- Investigates causes tending to destroy or impair the free-market system.
- Explores and develops market-based solutions.
The Hands Off My Home campaign effects significant and substantial reforms of state and local eminent domain laws. While we are not a lobbying firm, we do provide a unique and principled perspective to legislators at every level of government on how to better protect the property rights of Americans. Launched in June 2005—just days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal Constitution allows government to use its power of eminent domain to generate more tax revenue—we employ a strategic approach, using legislative counseling, grassroots organization, social science research, and media relations to increase protections for property owners nationwide.
Key outcomes through March 2009:
The Institute for Justice continues to empower grassroots citizens to fight eminent domain abuse through the Hands Off My Home campaign of the Castle Coalition. Since its inception just days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s dreadful decision in Kelo v. City of New London, the Hands Off My Home campaign has helped to save more than 16,000 properties nationwide from eminent domain abuse. Forty-three states have reformed their laws, including six state constitutional amendments (the strongest protection a state can give its citizens). And eight state supreme courts have ruled in favor of property owners when considering takings similar to those at issue in the Kelo case.
In the period August 2009 to March 2010, we distributed more than 200 copies of our award-winning Eminent Domain Abuse Survival Guide to activists across the country. And while we are consistently and heavily involved with a handful of projects in states with the worst abuse (see summaries below), many property owners simply take our materials and run with them. During the grant period, one couple in northern Minneapolis demonstrated how effective IJ’s Survival Guide is all on its own.
Kevin and Valerie Holler contacted the Institute for Justice when they found out that the home they rent to two families and their business next door were on the county’s acquisition list for a new library in northern Minneapolis. The county did not need the Hollers’ land for the project, and although libraries are typically considered “public use,” we recognized that this was an abuse of power and urged them to follow the grassroots strategies outlined in our Survival Guide. We sent the Hollers the guide along with our eye-catching posters. Using our materials and with some guidance from IJ’s Minnesota Chapter, the Hollers convinced the county that taking their property was not necessary, and the commission rescinded the authorization to use eminent domain to take any more land for the project. These strategies work time and again and we are delighted to add the Hollers to the long list of success stories that have been made possible by the support of the Alex C. Walker Foundation and our other donors.
Meanwhile, thanks in large measure to the Hands Off My Home campaign, eminent domain abuse has become less of a nationwide problem and more localized to New York, California, and Missouri. New York in particular has seen considerable attention in recent months. Two high-profile takings have been front-and-center in the debate and may very well lead to much-needed legislative reform in the state (New York is one of the seven states that has yet to enact reform in the wake of the Kelo decision).
In the first situation, Castle Coalition-trained activists are fighting Columbia University’s illegal use of eminent domain to expand its campus. In the second, another group of Castle Coalition-trained activists are fighting a private developer’s use of eminent domain to wipe out a vibrant part of Brooklyn to build an arena, retail space, and high-end housing. IJ also continues to work with business owners in Willets Point in Queens, who recently learned that the city paid to lobby itself in favor of the project that threatens to displace them; and a small business owner in East Harlem, who the city is trying to condemn for a second time--even though the city itself owns every other parcel in the three-block target area, and refuses to sell or develop those properties, creating the very blight they use to justify the takings.
To draw attention to the situation in New York, we released this past fall Building Empires, Destroying Homes: Eminent Domain Abuse in New York, which documents how bad the issue of eminent domain abuse has grown in the state. We distributed the report to New York legislators and called for meaningful and much-needed reform. Similarly, we sent the studies to each New York City councilman asking them to oppose projects abusing eminent domain, and sent introduction letters and the study to each new City Councilman following the November 2009 election.
In December, we organized a screening of a documentary, Battle of Brooklyn, which is being produced through the Moving Picture Institute. The documentary follows Daniel Goldstein’s six-year-long fight to save his home and community from being seized by eminent domain for developer Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. Daniel’s condo sits at center court of Ratner’s proposed basketball arena for the New Jersey Nets.
The screening was followed by a panel discussion about the use and abuse of eminent domain in New York, featuring Mindy Fullilove, professor at Columbia University and author of Root Schock and IJ’s report, “Eminent Domain and African Americans: What is the Price of the Commons?”; property owner Daniel Goldstein; Michael Galinsky, producer of Battle of Brooklyn, Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney in New York City and former head of the New York State Civil Liberties Union; and IJ staff attorney Bob McNamara. IJ’s director of activism and coalitions Christina Walsh moderated the panel, which was followed by a discussion with the over 100-strong audience.
IJ is currently working with New York state legislators to garner support at the Capitol for reform, building a statewide coalition, and developing research to counter the loud proponents of eminent domain abuse in New York. IJ’s director of activism and coalitions was in New York City in January, testifying before a special Senate committee hearing on recent state court rulings and the need for eminent domain reform. In February, she presented to legislators in Albany at the 39th Annual Legislative Conference of the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators, and she had an op-ed this month in the Huffington Post.
In January, the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal published online IJ’s analysis applying to New York the same methods as our study, Victimizing the Vulnerable, looking at the demographics of areas under threat of eminent domain in New York City and Long Island, including the Atlantic Yards footprint (the area at issue in Brooklyn). Most shocking, project areas where eminent domain is authorized have a greater percentage of minority residents (92 percent) compared to surrounding communities (57 percent). Overall, we found that in New York City, eminent domain abuse is even more likely to fall on minorities, the poor, and the less well-educated, highlighting the need for stronger legal protections for the most vulnerable. This data and the resulting article will be a critical tool in pushing legislative reform in New York.
IJ’s director of activism and coalitions, Christina Walsh, also traveled to California in March to train activists in cities with the some of the worst eminent domain abuse. In Martinez, activists have been successfully fighting for years their city’s attempt to establish a redevelopment agency, but the city once again is discussing the unpopular proposal. Christina trained 30 activists at the March 2010 session. In San Pablo, the government is considering reauthorizing its power of eminent domain over 90 percent of the city. A hundred residents showed up at the first hearing on the issue to express their disapproval. Christina trained another 64 activists at the March workshop. And in Long Beach, after a successful Castle Coalition training workshop last year, residents formed Long Beach Citizens Against Eminent Domain Abuse to fight the city’s landgrab. We provided guidance on the different alternatives they have to protect their homes and businesses through a city ordinance, an initiative, or a charter change, and then revisited the area on the March 2010 trip to help the group organize their efforts to change local law--a difficult and time-consuming process. We also are working with a group in Grantville, outside of San Diego, whose business district is threatened with eminent domain.
California has a tremendous organization of municipal officials whom we work closely with, Municipal Officials for Redevelopment Reform. They have been very effective at identifying local officials who are supportive of property rights and opposed to eminent domain abuse, and the group’s leader (the chair of the Orange County Board of Supervisors) has eagerly agreed to help Christina mimic these efforts in New Jersey.
Meanwhile, in Missouri, the Castle Coalition returned to the North Side of St. Louis, an almost entirely African American community scarred by infamous and failed urban renewal efforts of the 1950s and 1960s. A developer has been buying up properties for the past five years and letting them fall into disrepair. The streets are lined with perfectly fine homes to working class families, next door to crumbling, abandoned structures that attract crime and overgrown weeds. The community had no idea what the developer’s plans were, until he submitted his application for tax increment financing and the power of eminent domain, requesting from the city more than $400 million and the authority to acquire any private property on a list of 2,400 parcels.
Area resident Romona Taylor Williams contacted the Castle Coalition for help. Romona is an activist who worked with IJ to defeat an urban renewal scheme years ago in Charleston, West Virginia. In August, IJ organized and spoke at a community meeting of concerned citizens at Shining Light Pentecostal Church, which is on the developer’s acquisition list and has been at its location for more than 70 years. More than 80 people came to the community meeting and left fired up, confident that they can stop this landgrab. No less than five media outlets were in attendance. Then, last fall, we helped the group organize a Harvest Festival to raise further awareness. More than 100 members of the community attended to hear various speakers, including one from IJ. The coalition now is focused on gathering signatures statewide for an initiative that will reform Missouri’s eminent domain laws.
In Washington state, IJ’s state chapter researched and published through the Washington Policy Center a report on the use of Washington’s Community Renewal Law. This information was incorporated into the final report of Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna’s Eminent Domain Task Force, of which IJ-WA executive director Bill Maurer was a member. The Task Force report was released in January by the attorney general’s office at a press conference in Olympia, which IJ recruited Castle Coalition activists to attend and show their support for reform of the Community Renewal Law. Among the media placements we earned were two features in the Olympian and one by influential radio talk show host John Carlson. The Castle Coalition continues to regularly mobilize members to make their support for reform heard. We also are working with Evergreen Freedom Foundation at their request to help form their new Property Rights Center.
In Delaware, after two years of efforts by the Castle Coalition and its activists to fix the loopholes in Delaware’s first attempt at reform in the wake of Kelo, the state finally passed strong legislation this year that effectively protects the state’s home and small business owners. Delaware’s citizens are finally safe from the abuse of eminent domain for private profit.
In St. Paul, Minnesota, the city’s Port Authority had tried to take the property of small business owner Karen Haug for an unspecified private development. Although the Port Authority sought to keep the conflict quiet, IJ’s Minnesota chapter argued forcefully in the court of public opinion until at last the Port Authority relented. As the St. Paul Pioneer Press editorialized, “The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public advocacy law firm, turned the battle into a cause, arguing the Port was abusing the eminent domain law. Thanks to our efforts, Karen’s property is now safe.
The Castle Coalition’s Maffucci Fellows continue to provide ongoing support. Notably this year, one fellow wrote an extensive memo on the use of stimulus funds for projects that abuse eminent domain, and another put together research on light rail development and the threat of eminent domain nationwide. The fellows also have been busy updating our state-by-state research on eminent domain abuse, which amounts to well over 1,000 pages and provides a constant source of new contacts to reach out to.
The academic version of our 2007 publication, Victimizing the Vulnerable: The Demographics of Eminent Domain Abuse, ran in the October 2009 issue of Urban Studies. Urban Studies is a peer-reviewed journal, ranked fifth out of 32 urban studies journals worldwide. The article entitled “Testing O’Connor and Thomas: Does the Use of Eminent Domain Target Poor and Minority Communities?” uses census data to test the predicted consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo. In their dissents, Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas predicted that poor, minority, and other historically disenfranchised and comparably powerless communities would be disproportionately hurt through eminent domain abuse. Our study compares the demographic characteristics of 184 areas targeted by eminent domain for private development to their surrounding communities and found that eminent domain disproportionately targets minorities, the less educated, and the less well-off.
Finally, back in New London, Connecticut (the site of the infamous case before the U.S. Supreme Court), we continued to make the case to the public about the importance of property rights. Last summer, our advocacy garnered a lengthy AP feature on the still-empty ground where the homes of Susette Kelo and her neighbors once stood. As the Associated Press reported, all that remain there now are feral cats and weeds. This feature was picked up by more than 250 newspapers across the country as well as in such influential blogs as the Huffington Post. We also made the most of the announcement by the pharmaceutical company for whom Susette and her neighbors’ property was seized that it soon would abandon its research and development headquarters in New London. IJ and our clients were featured on ABC World News Tonight, on Democracy Now!, and in the San Francisco Chronicle, among many other news outlets. We dominated the terms of the debate and maximized yet another opportunity to discuss the importance of property rights. We are grateful to the Walker Foundation for providing the support that makes this work possible.
Property ownership is the foundation of America’s free-enterprise system. A judicial standard that allows the use of eminent domain to transfer property from one individual to another is a grave threat to fundamental freedoms. But by drawing national attention to the abuse of eminent domain for private gain and by actively combating this practice, IJ and the Castle Coalition are helping to restore a critical component of America’s free-market system so that it can flourish as the Founders intended. Through our rallies, training and workshops, data collection and research projects, as well as information dissemination on the dangerous consequences of public takings for private development, the Castle Coalition works to secure a legal standard where all are equal under the law and competition is free to thrive.
No one is safe from the threat of eminent domain abuse. Sandra Day O’Connor said it best in her dissenting opinion: “Today the Court abandons [a] long-held, basic limitation on government power. 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. . . . 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.”
We publicize the results and products of the Hands Off My Home campaign through e-mail and fax reports to the media, policy organizations, academics, and our donors. We also provide complete access to all our publications and findings through our websites, www.castlecoalition.org and www.ij.org.
Project Link www.castlecoalition.org
(Check sent: 7/24/2009)