When Public Use Means Private Gain

In a recent article in the Village Voice, writer Paul Moses reviews the details of the lease at The New York Times‘ new headquarters, which is currently under construction. The lease prohibits a whole host of tenants—including schools, medical facilities and discount stores—on land that was obtained by eminent domain, but allows luxury uses like an auction house.

Offices, a dormitory and other shops were razed in order to prepare the lot for the newspaper’s building based on the state’s claim that bulldozing the properties would serve a public use by removing blight in Times Square. Hardly. The Times case illustrates the fallacy of blight removal and highlights the real reason behind the abuse of eminent domain—private profit.

Historically, urban renewal statutes were used to rid neighborhoods of dilapidated and vermin-infested houses. Now, however, they are used to take perfectly fine homes and small businesses that just happen to be in good locations—like Times Square. What was once designed to help communities has morphed into a tool to serve big business.

Even in those states that say they don’t allow eminent domain for economic development, there’s still a very real danger of eminent domain abuse. That’s because all states have urban renewal laws that give condemnation powers to cities to control blight, and these are used everywhere to increase private profits and fatten government coffers. The criteria to designate neighborhoods as blighted can be so vague that they literally apply to any property anywhere. As a result, everyone’s at risk. In fact, properties that aren’t blighted at all can even be taken if they happen to be next door to one that is. This makes legislative reform of eminent domain laws so essential.

Thankfully, in response the outcry of the American people, more than 30 states and the U.S. Congress plan some eminent domain reform. Let’s hope the changes are significant and not superficial. Join us to make sure every legislature hears the call to restore our property rights.