Stealing Land in Montgomery, Alabama

Will the current outrage in Montgomery provoke a modern civil rights movement against eminent domain through the back door? It certainly should.

On Wednesday in Montgomery, developer Jim Peera displayed this map as part of his testimony at a public forum of the State Advisory Committee (which I chair) of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The pins show buildings demolished by the city of Montgomery in 2008. As you can see, the vast majority are concentrated in one area which just so happens to be heavily black and low-income. Ironically, the area included the apartment of Rosa Parks.

Typically, the city will designate a building as “blighted” or a “nuisance,” sometimes using a subjective and arbitrary standard, as in the Jimmy McCalll case. It then bills the owner for the demolition costs. Because many of these owners are poor, they will either have to abandon their land or sell it at a high discount to either a private developer or the city. Even when they can afford demolition, taxes, and other costs, the city has repeatedly destroyed the current or best use of the land by changing the zoning designation to single-family housing. The result is the same: abandonment of the land or sale at bargain-basement prices.

Unlike conventional eminent domain, the owner under eminent domain through the back door has no right to compensation from the city, even in theory.

David T. Beito is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, retired professor of history at the University of Alabama, and author of The New Deal’s War on the Bill of Rights: The Untold Story of FDR’s Concentration Camps, Censorship, and Mass Surveillance.
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