Law

In New York, Blight Is Whatever Officials Say It Is

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Eminent domain abuse has reared its head in East Harlem. New York City officials plan to seize a family-owned dry cleaning business, raze the buildings, and hand the forcibly vacated land to a private developer.

City officials insist that the property is "blighted," the condition of severe disrepair required to trigger a taking under state eminent domain law. But as Damon Bae, whose parents opened Fancy Cleaners after immigrating from Korea in 1981, told the New York 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 it is now using as a pretext for seizing the property.

Unfortunately for the Baes and others like them, the U.S. Supreme Court rubber-stamped a similar land grab in 2005's Kelo v. City of New London decision.

New York's highest court—the Court of Appeals—did the same in 2009, when it ruled 6–1 to let the state seize property on behalf of a basketball arena and luxury apartment project in Brooklyn. In that case, state officials described the 22-acre project site as "blighted," thereby setting the stage for bulldozers to clear away homes and businesses. Their evidence for the claim? Such factors as "weeds," "graffiti," and "underutilization."

What's worse, the court basically admitted 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 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," he wrote. "It is hard to imagine any court saying that a decision about whether an utterance is constitutionally protected speech…is not primarily a judicial exercise."