When the Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London that local governments could seize your house and sell it to Wal-Mart without running afoul of the United States Constitution, it set off a shudder of public revulsion from New England to South-Central Los Angeles. A whopping 93 percent of Granite State residents in a July University of New Hampshire poll opposed using eminent domain for private development. Newspaper editorial boards, in states both red and blue, roundly condemned the decision, with one notable exception. (See "Why The New York Times ? Eminent Domain " October 2005.) Legislators in more than two dozen states have made at least preliminary noises about restricting the practice, with Alabama first out of the gate with a new law. Many politicians from the Democratic Party–not normally known for championing property rights–understood Kelo as a tool for the rich to screw the poor, and as an affront to Americans' very way of life.
"It's like undermining motherhood and apple pie," Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a fire-breathing lefty from South-Central Los Angeles, told the San Francisco Chronicle after she co-sponsored a successful House amendment blocking the use of federal funds in cities that engage in private-to-private eminent domain transfers. "I mean, people's homes and their land–it's very important, and it should be protected by government, not taken for somebody else's private use."
But while Waters' folksy wisdom matched literally every reaction to Kelo I heard from left-of-center acquaintances in L.A., it did not resonate with her fellow California Democrats who work in the trenches of local governance. For them, eminent domain has become a crucial, regrettably routine shortcut for "redeveloping" run-down areas, speeding up gentrification of hip neighborhoods, and otherwise doling out favors to anyone promising the sales tax revenue on which their municipal governments depend.
In May the Los Angeles City Council approved a $325 million project at the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine, including a fancy new 296-room W Hotel. The project would displace, among others, the Bernard Luggage store, which has stuck by the neighborhood through thick and mostly thin for the last 55 years. When it was approved, L.A.'s City News Service reports, City Councilman Eric 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 land owners."
In other words, the government won't take your property unless you refuse to sell. This Don Corleone?style approach can be found all over California, especially in neighborhoods (such as Hollywood and Vine) that are no longer covered under any meaningful definition of the word blight. (State law establishes blight as the precondition for private-to-private eminent domain transfers.) The W Hotel isn't about to invest in Skid Row, but it sure does get annoyed when pesky luggage stores make it harder to tap into a resurgent neighborhood.
Ditto for a huge mixed-retail project slated for downtown Alhambra, in East L.A. County, where tax-greedy local pols drool over the prospect of replicating the retail redevelopment nirvana of nearby Pasadena and are willing to label as "blighted" a whopping 60 businesses, including the Museum of Contemporary Arab Art. Blight has become such an elastic term of convenience that the sparsely populated California City, near Edwards Air Force Base, has declared "blighted" a patch of unused desert coveted by Hyundai.
The paradox is that eminent domain abuse is seared into the historical consciousness of Southern California's Democrat-leaning poor people. Dodger Stadium was infamously built on land stolen from thousands of working-class Latino families, a vile act of property violence that has inspired a recent best-selling book, a popular local play, a well-reviewed documentary, and a Ry Cooder CD. In downtown L.A., multigeneration immigrant communities (and priceless Victorian homes) were leveled in the 1970s and '80s to build sterile office towers for white-shoe law firms. The 105 and 10 freeways ripped ugly seams through poor black communities. Hollywood Star Lanes, the hardscrabble and locally revered bowling alley made famous in The Big Lebowski, was seized from its original owners to build a mammoth school in a crappy neighborhood. And Indio, a city adjacent to Palm Springs, razed an entire black neighborhood in 1993 to make way for a shopping mall expansion that never took place. Obscenely, Indio officials are now trying to buy out two minority churches nearby to clear way for yet another promised extension.
Southern California has always been a political trendsetter, from property tax revolts to immigration crackdowns to the rejection of taxpayer financing for football stadiums. If the disconnect between its Democratic residents and politicians over eminent domain continues to widen, we can only hope another revolt is around the corner.??
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.