An attorney who represented property owners in various government-takings cases would often tell me that, "property rights are human rights." That became one of my favorite mantras, given that people's homes, businesses, and land are not merely objects. They represent the aspirations, dreams, and hard work of their owners.
That concept came to mind after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 796, which set in motion the return of a prime piece of Manhattan Beach property to the descendants of its previous owners. News stories have focused on the racial-justice aspects of the case, but it's also a story about property rights—and how a taking can deprive generations of their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In 1912, Charles and Willa Bruce purchased the property and built a small resort with a café, lodge, and dance hall that catered to African American residents who were denied access to many Southern California public beaches. The state Senate detailed the sordid history that followed:
"The Bruce family and black visitors faced harassment, threats, and violence from white residents and white supremacist groups. Despite this, the Bruce family refused to leave. White residents launched a campaign to convert the area into a public park. In 1924, Manhattan Beach city officials condemned the neighborhood and seized more than two dozen properties via eminent domain."
The parcels sat vacant for decades before they were transferred to the state and then to Los Angeles County. There was no compelling need for the park—only a frenzy to keep African Americans out of the city. When the government exerts eminent domain—the power to take private property by force, upon the payment of "just compensation"—it ought to do so only in the most limited circumstances.
The U.S. Constitution allows such takings for "public uses"—but the courts have given local governments vast latitude in making those calls. The courts have subsequently twisted the term "public use" into "public benefit," a sleight of hand that allows property seizures any time City Hall believes that the new use is more beneficial to the public than the current use.
In recent years, that has meant that local agencies can take a thriving small business and hand it over to a chain store because it offers more benefits than the old one—e.g., it pays higher tax revenues or helps revitalize a downtown block. As Bruce's Beach makes clear, even traditional eminent domain uses (parks, highways, courthouses) can be widely abused. Allowing the government to take land from one private owner and give it to another private entity only made such abuses more rampant.
In her dissent in the U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo decision (allowing the taking of a home to make way for a pharmaceutical plant), then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted, "The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power….As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more."
We see with Bruce's Beach that the erosion of property rights falls the hardest on those with the least political power. Ironically, progressive politicians who rightly championed this compensatory legislation are the ones who have been most eager to give the government escalating power to take private property (not only through eminent domain but through regulation) in the name of the common good.
Yet, in the early 20th century, city officials viewed the removal of African Americans from white neighborhoods as something that advanced the "common good." As O'Connor realized, the best way to protect the least-powerful residents is to protect their property rights, so that individual owners can tell venal politicians and bigoted neighbors to pound sand.
The city compensated the Bruces, but often the government becomes cheap when it comes time to pay up. And the core element of property rights is the right to say "no"—even when officials and the broader community disagree. Despite the payment, this taking harmed not only the couple and their customers, but their descendants. It robbed them of something more fundamental than their land.
In my coverage of the state's now-defunct redevelopment agencies, I talked to local officials who argued that their latest urban renewal projects were better for the community than the "tawdry" businesses and homes that stood in the way of progress.
For them, I'd offer this quotation from 18th-century British statesman William Pitt: "The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter, the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!"
In other words, property rights are human rights. Perhaps the California Legislature is starting to heed that lesson.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.