Fruit Use

Eminent domain in New Orleans.


The unusual term usufruct comes from the Latin words usus and fructus, meaning "use" and "fruit." Napoleon converted the use of other people's figurative fruit into a legal concept, by which an owner of a property could sell or lease his right to profit from it to a second party. You can still find usufruct in the legal codes of most everywhere the emperor once cast his shadow, from France to Poland to Louisiana.

Now two affordable-housing advocates in New Orleans want to revive usufruct in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, so that–in theory, anyway–the 50,000 to 100,000 water-damaged properties in the area can be quickly rehabilitated by the state. According to tentative plans sketched by New Orleans Finance Authority Executive Director Mtumishi St. Julien and bond lawyer Wayne Neveu, homeowners who lacked money for repairs could sign the job over to the government, which would clean it up, rent it out to an "essential worker" (cop, firefighter, etc.), use the proceeds to pay the mortgage, and then in three or five years hit the owners with a bill in exchange for resuming the use of their fruits.

"You are not going to rebuild New Orleans unless you are able to get government access to private property," St. Julien told the Los Angeles Times in October. "If government does not solve that problem, everything else is just talk. It is foolish to believe otherwise."

Luckily for those who shudder at the idea of the Louisiana government becoming the largest construction firm and residential real estate company on the Gulf Coast, the usufruct revival has yet to worm its way to the state legislature. Unluckily, the less obscure legal concepts of eminent domain and governmental "redevelopment corporations" are alive and well, and on the verge of being expanded in New Orleans by the U.S. Congress.

Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.) introduced the Louisiana Recovery Corporation Act on October 20. Although he tried gamely to distance himself from the Democratic usufructers and to insist the legislation fits his history as a "property-rights advocate," the results would be similar: a huge government entity buying the rights to private property, rebuilding, profiting, then negotiating with the owner years later.

And if the original owner doesn't like the government's terms? "The Corporation," the bill states, "may exercise the power of eminent domain."?