Uprooted; Burlington, Iowa forces Betty Hayes from her home of 51 years

Eminent domain abuse can happen anywhere to anyone, whether in a small town or big city, whether you are rich or poor, young or old.  Elderly residents in rural Burlington, Iowa, are the most recent example, having seen that their own city government plans to bring in the wrecking ball on their World War II-era homes—just so the city could make more money.

Betty Hayes has lived in The Manor neighborhood since she and her husband bought the house 51 years ago.  Her husband passed away four years ago and their six children all grew up there, but the family remains in the home just the same.

“I am proud to have hosted every single Thanksgiving dinner for as far back as I can remember,” said Mrs. Hayes.  “My husband would be proud to see that we all still make good use of the home he worked so hard to improve, to make a place we could call home and remember him always.”[1]

But evidently, the memories and hard work of the Hayes family home are of absolutely no importance to the tax-hungry City Council of Burlington.  The Council has seen an opportunity to enlarge its coffers and wants to bulldoze the areas occupied by the homes of long-standing residents.[2]  This type of abuse against those with few resources is exactly the kind forecast by Justice O’Connor in her famous dissent in Kelo v. City of New London:  the poor would be forced out to make way for the richer..

Despite the Council’s grandiose vision, Mrs. Hayes, along with several neighbors, pressed on—they told the City Council that their homes were not for sale.  They organized a community meeting and passed out flyers all over the neighborhood, alerting passersby to the terrible abuses occurring right in their own backyards.

Betty Hayes would not let her 78 years stop her.  She wrote several letters to the editor of The Burlington Hawk Eye[3] and attended every single Council and neighborhood meeting, and her children sometimes joined her.

Still, the City Council members ignored the fact that so many elderly residents would be forced to move from the homes they had known for so long, many without mortgages.  Realizing many would simply not sell out to the city, the area was designated as “blighted”—a backdoor, standardless tactic used to take property by eminent domain.[4]

City Council members attempted to cushion the blow by saying they would “relocate” the residents displaced by eminent domain proceedings.  Relocation plans included moving the residents to low-income apartments in a different section of town.  Showing a paternalistic view that is becoming all-too-common among government officials these days one council member said, “they will be better off there than they are now.”[5]

It is highly doubtful that Manor residents, many in their 80s, would feel better once moved into apartments—not houses—that reflect absolutely none of their personal history of the last several decades.

Betty Hayes put it best when she said, “The City of Burlington has promised that it will help me find a different place to live after they’ve kicked me out.  But that new place to live will not have memories of my husband all around, and it will not be the place that has hosted almost every family holiday since my children were babies.”

Despite the efforts and major outcry over the bulldozing of The Manor, it was tragically not enough to save the neighborhood of homes.  The elderly people fought hard and until the very end to cling to their homes, but the overbearing and fast-moving City Council was simply too much for them:  January 2007 marked the beginning of the end of a bitter battle between the Burlington City Council and The Manor residents when the city voted to start the eminent domain procedure.  Almost a dozen of the remaining residents will be pushed out of their homes by eminent domain.[6] 

It is always a tragedy when people lose their homes or small businesses to eminent domain abuse.  Property rights are indeed the foundation of all our rights—no matter how young or old, rich or poor we may be.  Let the example of Burlington, Iowa be proof that no one’s home is safe from the government’s wrecking ball until eminent domain for private gain is a thing of the past.

[1] Note:  Quotations from Betty Hayes are from a personal phone interview conducted by Melanie Harmon, the Institute for Justice, January 3, 2007.

[2] Amy Barrileaux, “Burlington seniors may be forced from their homes,” WQAD Moline, Ill., November 9, 2006.

[3] Betty Hayes, “No to Manor plan,” Burlington Hawk Eye, September 26, 2006.

  Betty Hayes, “House hunting,” Burlington Hawk Eye, November 8, 2006.

  Betty Hayes, “Unanswered questions,” Burlington Hawk Eye, December 9, 2006.


[4] City of Burlington, Iowa:  City Council Meeting Minutes, September 25, 2006.  Courtesy of Manor resident Cecil Lowe.

[5] Ibid.

[6] James Quirk, Jr. “City proceeds with eminent domain plan,” Burlington Hawk Eye, February 7, 2007.