Conservatives and progressives can find common ground when it comes to eminent domain. Libertarians generally abhor it as a violation of private property rights while civil rights groups recognize its disproportionate impact on people of color and low income. We argue that the two sides should come together and urge the Oklahoma legislature to join 44 other states in restricting the oppressive abuse of eminent domain. Enacting eminent domain reform can be a win across the political spectrum.
Eminent domain authorizes the government to seize someone’s property even when the owner objects. While eminent domain can have a legitimate purpose, forcing landowners to relinquish their property in the name of economic development, urban renewal, and eradicating urban “blight” tends to disproportionately displace the cultures, families, and neighborhoods of the poor and powerless, often racial minorities.
In a lawsuit that culminated in a landmark Supreme Court decision, Susette Kelo and several other residents of New London, Connecticut, fought to keep their homes. Their properties were taken, not because anything was wrong with the homes, but because poor homeowners occupied old houses on prime real estate in an economically depressed area. A private development corporation and governmental officials felt they could put that land to better use by taking homes, knocking them down, and using the land to directly benefit Pfizer, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.
Eventually, the homeowners lost, properties were condemned, and homes were razed. Tragically, the promised economic development never occurred and the land remains vacant to this day.
Worse still, the Kelo case exemplifies eminent domain’s disproportionate impact on those without economic or political clout. Even though New London’s economic development plan claimed it was necessary to clear the entire development zone, one property was left untouched – a well-connected men’s club patronized by the political elite. All it took to save the Italian Dramatic Club from demolition was a phone call to the right person. For everyone else, it was tough luck.
However, we do not have to look halfway across the country to find an example of vulnerable communities being exploited in the name of urban renewal. After a trip to the Texas Medical Center in Houston in the spring of 1965, a group of power brokers and urban renewal advocates began formulating a vision for Oklahoma City’s medical campus. Ultimately, as part of the major urban renewal efforts of the 1960s and ’70s, the Oklahoma Medical Center project displaced 731 families, nearly all of whom, 657 to be precise, were people of color.
One of the mechanisms governments use to expand eminent domain is declaring certain areas “blighted.” Blight can be a vague, ill-defined term and often justifies tearing down businesses and homes in poor neighborhoods—where property is cheaper and people have fewer resources to fight. Hilary Shelton of the NAACP testified that as many as four million people, most of whom were minorities, have been displaced by urban renewal. Between 1949 and 1973, the government displaced one million people, two-thirds of whom were Black.
Eminent domain is one of the most intrusive powers possessed by governmental authorities. Since 2005, when the Supreme Court handed down the Kelo decision, 44 states have restricted the use of eminent domain to seize property and destroy homes for economic development or blight. Oklahoma has not. Oklahoma voters should voice their desire to protect the rights of property owners by restricting using eminent domain based upon projected economic development and subjective designations of blight.
Ultimately, the answer to injustice is not more government but less. The answer is a limited government whose purpose is to secure individual rights to life, liberty, and property for all.
Brad Galbraith is Land Use Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.