Whose eminent-domain ox is being gored?
by Matt Edens
One thing about the recent furor over eminent domain leaves me a little mystified. It’s not the focus of the fury. The New London redevelopment case that kicked off all uproar—bulldozing an entire neighborhood to make way for a hotel and conference center—is a pretty clear usurpation of government powers by private development interests. No, what gets me is the unholy alliance of convenience that the controversy has wrought.
It’s not surprising that conservative and libertarian property-rights advocates decry the Supreme Court’s recent decision in support of the city of New London’s attempt to use eminent domain to grease the skids and make the development happen; that much is to be expected. What’s surprising is how, manning the barricades alongside them, are many of the progressive, pro-urban, neighborhood activist folks who are often at odds with the property-rights crowd on issues relating to zoning, planning and preservation.
It’s a reflexive reaction, I think. The “big developer” who seeks to destroy the neighborhood in order to line his pockets is as much a stock villain in grassroots activist circles as he is in Hollywood. In that guise, the New London case simply becomes a way to put a new twist on an argument that is, at least from the progressive perspective, really a retread of the same old turf: zoning, planning and preservation.
John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism and an opponent of the Kelo project, said as much during a PBS debate back when the controversy was dominating headlines. “The key to revitalization of American cities,” said Norquist, “is the complexity of cities, the form of cities, the streets and blocks that were being ripped apart in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s. Cities have finally started to figure out that the urban form is actually valuable, and they don’t need to tear cities down and try to turn them into the suburbs.”
Someone, it seems, forgot to tell New London. Knoxville, after more than a decade of nudging from neighborhood activists and others, seems to be figuring it out, though. Thirty years after its original housing stock was obliterated in the name of revitalization, the old heart of East Knoxville around the Coliseum and Safety Building remains the most impoverished real estate in town (and a significant chunk of its housing stock is in the midst of yet another publicly subsidized upgrade). Instead, the inner city’s revitalization has taken root primarily in those neighborhoods—Fourth and Gill, Old North Knoxville and elsewhere—where the “urban form” and the original housing stock has remained intact.
Not that there aren’t challenges. Many older neighborhoods still teeter in the balance between rejuvenation and further decline. And one of the most visible weights on the decline side of the scale are vacant and abandoned buildings, typically houses that have been run through the rental real-estate wringer, hulks discarded after the landlord has sometimes squeezed a subsidized profitof as much as 100 percent from the property.
What to do about those problem properties is one of the thorniest challenges neighborhood advocates have to tackle. And if you ask me, it’s a question those angry folks saying “zip, zilch, nada” about the government’s use of eminent domain to transfer blighted property from one private owner to another have done a poor job of answering.
“Abatement” seems to be the preferred fallback position, as one Seattle based urbanist blogger put it: “force the owner to remove the offending blight condition (that proverbial fire-trap rat-infested house). Or, do it for them if they refuse and then send them the bill.” Somehow, though, I don’t think the abatement advocates think the scenario through.
First there’s the matter of what happens to a neighborhood as its housing stock disappears. Then there’s the question of whether the problem is really gone once the house is. What becomes of the vacant, often overgrown and littered lots that code-enforcement demolition produces? In Knoxville it is quite likely that they end up in the city’s hands anyway, almost by default. The blighted, unwanted real estate is then passed on to private owners through the auspices of low-income housing nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity.
And the mechanism the city uses to make the transaction? That’s right: eminent domain.