Weighing the Impact of the Eminent Domain Ruling

U.S. Supreme Court justices voted 5-to-4 to allow local governments to seize a person's home or business in order to revitalize the surrounding area — even if that effort is led by a private company. Ed Gordon discusses the impact of the ruling with Robert Woodson, founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, and David Barron, a professor at Harvard Law School.

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ED GORDON, host:

Now for a closer look on eminent domain, we're joined by Robert Woodson, founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. He joins us from Washington, DC. Also with us, David Baron, professor at Harvard University Law School. He joins us from Boston.

Gentlemen, thank you very much. Greatly appreciate it.

Mr. BOB WOODSON (Founder and President, National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise): OK.

GORDON: Bob Woodson, you are against eminent domain, is my understanding, but we should note that this is an issue that has been on the books for quite a long time. Why are you against the Supreme Court ruling?

Mr. WOODSON: Well, because I think it's proper to use it to remove blight or to serve some public interest such as a highway, but in Washington, DC, and other cities throughout the history of this country, it is used--have a devastating effect on, particularly, low-income and black communities. In Forsyth, Georgia, the blacks were burned out; in Durham, North Carolina, the Hayti section, eminent domain under urban renewal promised to rebuild. They wiped 100 black businesses, 600 residents and leveled 75 acres that remain--many of those remain vacant today. Those businesses, those residents were never replaced. Washington, DC's, main northwest corridor was--removed thousands of low-income blacks to high-density southeast areas to be replaced by marinas--that has never seen the economic benefit to those low-income people. To suggest that you take people's private property so you can convert that into government money that can then deliver social programs to those people is absolutely ridiculous.

GORDON: David Baron, we're hearing from many sides, including people on the Hill. Tom Delay of Texas and John Cornyn, also of Texas, have suggested that they need to step in--Congress and state legislature--to stop the impact of this ruling. Tom Delay called it `disturbing.' The concern is, as Bob Woodson suggests, that there are and will be a disproportionate amount of poor affected with this ruling.

Professor DAVID BARON (Harvard Law School): Well, I think the irony is that though the abuses that Bob Woodson talked about are very much a reality and part of our history and a shameful part of our history, at the same time, through the efforts of Bob Woodson and others, there's been a real effort in the last 20 years to rethink how we do community economic development. And the major reform has involved including low-income persons in the planning of their own revitalization. And it'd be a terrible irony if, at a time when for the first time low-income communities are real partners in the planning process, we deprive cities of a major tool for implementing the plans they come up with.

In the city that I live next to, Boston, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, which is a group of low-income persons in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Boston, actually begged the city in the late 1980s to give them the power of eminent domain so they could use it to implement their plans for revitalization. The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative got that power and, through that, have been able to--with the partnering of low-income people themselves--come up with one of the most innovative plans for revitalization anywhere in the country. A ruling by the Supreme Court that went the other way would have precluded low-income persons from exercising that kind of control over their own neighborhoods. So I think as a constitutional matter, it was clearly the right decision. The question then is, politically, how do we make sure that planning exercises are more like what happened in Dudley Street in Boston and less like the kind of abuses that Bob Woodson's talking about that occurred early in our nation's history.

Mr. WOODSON: Well, right now in Washington we have--the poor people have never been welcome to the table to participate in any of the planning, such as the baseball field that's going to be built. When they're going to condemn hundreds of homes in Anacostia, low-income blacks in that area are saying right now, `We don't want it,' but their views are ignored because politicians and public officials who they fund have all of the power, as they've always had, and so what makes you think that suddenly they're going to be concerned about the interests of poor people and involve them in the planning process?

GORDON: So, Bob, your concern is that this ruling will allow the rich to get richer and will have absolutely no cake for the poor.

Mr. WOODSON: Yeah, I mean, when they can say a--that a family who's making $25,000 a year and owns a home--right now the cities can then take that home and give it to someone who makes $100,000 because they'll pay more taxes. Well...

Prof. BARON: Well, I think...

Mr. WOODSON: ...and that's--and that can be permitted in this decision...

Prof. BARON: Well...

Mr. WOODSON: ...and so what does that have...

Prof. BARON: Yeah...

Mr. WOODSON: That is really hostile to the poor.

Prof. BARON: But that's pretty much...

GORDON: David Baron, pick up on that point, and answer this if you would. Do you believe that safeguard measures have to walk hand in hand with this decision?

Prof. BARON: Definitely. And I think the example Bob gives us, trading a $25,000 home for a $100,000 home--the majority opinion of the Supreme Court, I think, makes perfectly clear that the court is not endorsing that. They make it perfectly clear that a one-to-one transfer purely for property tax increases would raise very serious suspicions that a private purpose was afoot. They cite to a lower-court decision of almost exactly that kind that struck it down and suggest that it would probably be stuck down by the Supreme Court as well. So the real issue is when you have a serious planning effort that's engaged in at the local level. They make a point in the opinion of noting that the community itself was involved in the effort in New London. Of course, there will be always a risk of abuse, but I think it's also important to think about what happens if low-income communities don't have the power of eminent domain. Where is the development going to go?

Mr. WOODSON: First of all, it's a misnomer to say that--you're using the word `community' as if that's synonymous with low-income people, and it's not the case. Maximum feasible participation has always been a part of urban renewal, but we know that that has always been shallow because when you have politicians required to be at the table, developers are required to be at the table, and then poor people make up a small percentage; they lack the knowledge, the experience to compete with developers and city officials. It is unfair. And there's nothing in this ruling that requires the city to involve poor people in the planning, is it?

Prof. BARON: Well, it did require that they actually have a real planning exercise, but Bob is right that there's nothing--a requirement in the ruling that poor people particularly be involved in it. That's exactly the kind of check that should be occurring at the state and local level. And even federal intervention that was designed to do that would be good. What I'm concerned about is this myth that if we did nothing and simply allowed the private market to work itself--deprive cities of the power of eminent domain--that poor people would be better off.

Mr. WOODSON: No one is suggesting...

Prof. BARON: The reason that's mythic is because cities need the power of...

Mr. WOODSON: ...that cities should be deprived of eminent domain.

Prof. BARON: ...eminent domain to attract the development that otherwise is clearly going to go out to the green fields and exurbia and the suburbs, which does not benefit poor people in the least.

Mr. WOODSON: Well, nobody...

GORDON: All right, Bob, 30 seconds. You get the last word.

Mr. WOODSON: Nobody's suggesting that eminent domain should be eliminated. What we're saying--it should be modified to secure public interests, not to make rich developers richer at the expense of the poor.

GORDON: Well, we...

Mr. WOODSON: That's the issue.

GORDON: We will certainly hear more from Washington on this. Senators DeLay and Cornyn are moving to try, in their words, to negate the impact of this ruling, so more to come from this.

Bob Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and David Baron of Harvard Law School, we thank you both for joining us. Greatly appreciate it.

Mr. WOODSON and Prof. BARON: (In unison) Thank you.

GORDON: Coming up, a Mexican postage stamp depicts a black stereotype. That's just part of our roundtable, up next.

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