Supreme Court

New York City Unleashes Eminent Domain Abuse on Immigrant Dry Cleaners in East Harlem

Another day, another shady land grab scheme by New York officials.


Eminent domain abuse has reared its ugly head in East Harlem. As Ginger Adams Otis reports in the New York Daily News, city officials plan to seize a family-owned dry cleaning business and then hand the forcibly vacated land to a wealthy private developer.

Damon Bae, whose parents opened the Fancy Cleaners business after immigrating to the United States from Korea in 1981, told the Daily News that "the city has offered my family about 30 cents on the dollar on the market value for what our three lots are worth—that's not enough to buy anything comparable in East Harlem today….The city's working so hard to meet the developer's timeline; meanwhile, we're trying to stay in business."

According to city officials, Bae's property is "blighted," the condition of severe disrepair required to trigger a taking under state eminent domain law. Yet as Bae told the Daily News, "the only 'blight' was in the [city-owned] vacant lots the city allowed to sit empty" nearby. In other words, the local government created the very conditions that it is now using as a pretext for seizing the Bae family's property.

Unfortunately for the Baes and others like them, the U.S. Supreme Court turned a blind eye to this sort of abuse in the 2005 case of Kelo v. City of New London. On the state level, New York's highest court—the Court of Appeals—ruled 6-1 in 2009 to let the state seize property on behalf of the real estate tycoon Bruce Ratner and his Atlantic Yards/Barclay's Center basketball stadium project in Brooklyn.

In that case, state officials described the 22-acre project site as "blighted," thereby setting the stage for the bulldozers to clear away homes and businesses. What was the evidence of this alleged blight? The state's report cited such factors as "weeds," "graffiti," and "underutilization." Needless to say, pretty much any block in the city could be seized under those standards.

What's worse, the court basically admitted that the whole thing was a sham. "It may be that the bar has now been set too low—that what will now pass as 'blight,' as that expression has come to be understood and used by political appointees to public corporations relying upon studies paid for by developers, should not be permitted to constitute a predicate for the invasion of property rights and the razing of homes and businesses," the majority said in Goldstein v. New York State Urban Development Corporation. "But any such limitation upon the sovereign power of eminent domain as it has come to be defined in the urban renewal context is a matter for the Legislature, not the courts."

In his lone dissent, Judge Robert Smith rightly blasted his colleagues for abdicating their judicial duty. "The right not to have one's property taken for other than public use is a constitutional right like others," Smith wrote. "It is hard to imagine any court saying that a decision about whether an utterance is constitutionally protected speech, or whether a search was unreasonable, or whether a school district has been guilty of racial discrimination, is not primarily a judicial exercise."

One year later, in Kaur v. New York State Urban Development Corporation, New York's high court cited its Goldstein ruling to support yet another shady eminent domain taking. This time the court ruled in favor of the "Manhattanville" project, a government scheme to seize a bunch of West Harlem homes and businesses in order to make room for a new research campus that Columbia University wanted to build. Despite significant evidence of cronyism and other misconduct, including the manufacturing of "blight" conditions by the school, the court upheld this land grab too.

In New York City, sadly, eminent domain abuse has been given the green light to proceed.

Related from Reason TV: "Billionaires vs. Brooklyn's Best Bar: Eminent Domain Abuse & the Atlantic Yards Project"