"Eminent Domain Through the Back Door"
Standing up for property rights and civil rights in Montgomery, Alabama
What is happening in the cradle of the modern civil rights movement? Jimmy McCall would like to know. "It was more my dream house," he laments, "and the city tore it down… It reminds me of how they used to mistreat black people in the Old South." In 1955, Rosa Parks took on the whole system of Jim Crow by refusing to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus. Today, McCall is waging a lonely battle against the same city government for another civil right: the freedom to build a home on his own land.
Though McCall's ambitions are modest, he is exceptionally determined. For years, he has scraped together a living by salvaging rare materials from historic homes and then selling them to private builders. Sometimes months went by before he had a client. Finally, he had put aside enough to purchase two acres in Montgomery and started to build. He did the work himself using materials accumulated in his business including a supply of sturdy and extremely rare longleaf pine.
McCall only earns enough money to build in incremental stages, but eventually his dream home took shape. According to a news story by Benjamin Solomon, the structure had "the high slanted ceilings, the exposed beams of dark, antique wood. It looks like a charming, spacious home in the making."
But from the outset, the city showed unremitting hostility. He has almost lost count of the roadblocks it threw up including a citation for keeping the necessary building materials on his own land during the construction process.
More seriously, he was charged under the state blight law, which allows a municipality to designate a building as a "public nuisance" and then demolish it. Critics have accurately called this "eminent domain through the back door" and warn that opportunities for abuse are almost limitless. In contrast to the standard eminent domain process, for example, property owners do not have any right to compensation, even in theory.
The reaction of Montgomery's city fathers seemed strange to McCall. Wasn't he trying to fight blight by building a new home?
McCall suspects that wealthy developers were trying to get their hands on the property: a rare two-acre parcel on a major thoroughfare. Unlike countless others in similar straits, McCall fought back and hired an experienced local lawyer. In the middle of last year, he negotiated a court-enforced agreement, which gave him 18 months to complete the home. Only a month after the agreement took effect, the city demolished the structure. Local bureaucrats, obviously in a hurry to tear it down, did not even give him notice. The bulldozers came in the same day as the court order that authorized them.
McCall appealed to the same judge who had allowed the demolition. Saying that she had been misled, the judge ordered the city to pay compensation. Montgomery has appealed and at this writing McCall has not received a cent. McCall thinks that the city intends to drag it out until his money runs out. "I've got a lot of fight left in me, and all I want is justice," he states.
McCall's story of eminent domain through the back door is depressingly familiar to Jim Peera's story. For almost five years, he has fought a pitched battle with City Hall over his plan to renovate a strategic parcel of 121 apartments in the heart of the Rosa Parks Community and rent them to low-income senior citizens. Montgomery has a multimillion dollar development plan for his 8-acre site and is using "blight" to condemn and demolish it.
Peera has withstood multiple setbacks on his investment, including unfounded criminal charges by the city and mysterious fires on his solid block structures. He has repeatedly tried to sell to or partner with the city for a much needed affordable housing development, but it has rebuffed him.
"They're used to forcing black folks to give their properties up via imposing hefty demolition liens, as opposed to buying land at fair market value," he said.
Most recently, the city tried to further devalue Peera's property by reducing the density from "multifamily" to single family, thus making it impossible to provide affordable low-income housing. Though Peera won in two courts, local bureaucrats, much like they are doing with McCall, meet his legal victories with appeals and other delays.
Peera, who had to flee from his native East Africa after Idi Amin expelled its Asian population, does not easily intimidate and is extremely determined to fight property abuse in Alabama. He is trying to mobilize other Montgomery property owners who face the same plight. Through the state's freedom of information act, he has obtained the names of over several hundred individuals, mostly from minority neighborhoods, who have had their homes summarily demolished under the blight law.
The former owners have related to him a litany of arbitrary mistreatment, but most were too poor or lacked the necessary information to fight back against the city. "What this City Hall is doing is criminal towards blacks and property owners, and it must be stopped," Peera said.
Peera has appealed to the State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights and hopes that others will join him. On Wednesday, Alabamians who believe that their property rights have been violated under eminent domain, either through the back door or the front door, can tell their stories to the Committee at a public forum from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Whitely Conference Hall on the Montgomery campus of Troy University.
David T. Beito is chair of the Alabama State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and professor of history at the University of Alabama. This article originally appeared in the The Tuscaloosa News.