In law, a single word can go a long way—and in many states, that word is “blight.” It is no longer used to describe properties that are dilapidated, rundown or rat-infested. Instead, state and local “blight” statutes throughout the United States are increasingly being used to condemn perfectly nice homes and small businesses for outrageous reasons.
Decades ago, lawmakers enacted urban renewal statutes as a way to restore residential and commercial slums. The basic idea behind these programs—which have long been recognized as failures even to urban planners—was to improve communities and eliminate dangers that particular properties posed to the health and safety of the public. Generally, urban renewal programs gave local officials the power to seize buildings that tangibly endangered citizens in these communities (though the police power already provided that ability).
Unfortunately, City officials across the nation have employed these same statutes to take or threaten beautiful homes and businesses, and the very idea behind urban renewal programs has been perverted to allow the seizure of properties that just happen to be in locations that are desirable to developers. That’s precisely how City officials in both Florida and New Jersey, for instance, have targeted the remaining affordable coastal communities for eminent domain abuse.
Local governments engage in so-called blight removal in accordance with local codes and state statutes, all of which trigger the power of eminent domain. The problem, however, is that these laws are written with such broad, sweeping language that leaves perfectly good property vulnerable to condemnation for private development. For example, some of the most common legal criteria under which property is taken by eminent domain are obsolescence, faulty arrangement or design, excessive land coverage, deleterious land use, and obsolete layout.
These criteria are so vague and so ubiquitous that they could be used to take literally every home, business and place of worship across the country. Lakewood, Ohio, considered homes “obsolescent” because they lacked three bedrooms, two full baths and a two-car garage. Norwood, Ohio, defended the condemnation of “deteriorating” properties on the absurd grounds that the neighborhood had “diversity of ownership” (Translation: Multiple homes were owned by different people. The very idea of individual home ownership was used as a means to condemn these homes.). City officials have declared entire neighborhoods “blighted”—including Grand Terrace, Calif., Alhambra, Calif., Jupiter, Fla., Riviera Beach, Fla., Sunset Hills, Mo., and the list goes on indefinitely. San Jose, Calif., declared a home blighted because it had wet leaves on its private tennis court. Daytona Beach, Fla., condemned three thriving businesses based on a 20-year old blight study. City officials found the charming downtown business district of Ardmore, Pa., to be blighted, despite the fact that the City designated it an official “historic district.” And, New York City bulldozed a dormitory and offices in Times Square to remove blight for the New York Times’ new headquarters—prime Manhattan real estate.
Increasingly, City officials are using “faulty arrangement” and “obsolete layout” to justify their use of eminent domain for private profit—and these terms are often used to describe businesses with parking in the front as opposed to the back, or homes with small side yards. Professional planners are finding homes that are just a few years old to be “obsolescent.” One of the more common gems in city halls across America is “excessive land coverage,” often used to describe buildings that no longer comply with current setback requirements. That’s of course because they were built before the government imposed those regulations. Standards may change, but the fundamental right to hold on to what’s yours does not.
Even more outrageous is the fact that states such as Alabama and Ohio allow condemnation for “preventing” blight. This means a locality can conclude that an area is not blighted and nonetheless take people’s property just because it might, at some indefinite point, become blighted. There’s not a single neighborhood in any of these states that would definitively fall outside of the legal blight criteria, leaving every home and business up for grabs. That’s one of the reasons there has never been a “blight study” that did not ultimately find blight.
The Castle Coalition is pleased to provide lawmakers with legislative language that respects the fundamental right of home and business owners to keep what they already own. Whether there should even be an exception for blight is a subject of much debate—but, at the very least, it is crucial that legislators make sure that blight can only apply to those few homes and businesses that are actually crumbling and a true danger to health and safety.
Until policymakers change state and local laws to bring government’s eminent domain power back to its original constitutional and ethical limits, abusive city officials will continue to get away with using blight statutes to seize any property that can simply make more money as something else. Reform is now more essential than ever—and, with the help of Castle Coalition members and concerned citizens, we’re sure to see it.