American Dream Denied

When Jerry Lee and his family fled Cambodia in 1975, losing their grocery store and tailor shop to the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, he first escaped to Thailand and then moved to the United States—a nation where citizens have the ability to keep what they’ve worked hard to own.  For Jerry, and his wife Lee (another Cambodian refugee whom he met in Bridgeport, Conn.), the American Dream manifested itself as Stewart’s Liquor, a small shop they purchased in 1988 in a Southern California strip mall called California Square. 

That is why it came as such a surprise to the Lees that the City of Riverside served the hardworking couple an eviction notice in May 2006.  Maxi Foods and the City—which has acquired half of California Square including the Lees’ store through eminent domain—plan to redevelop the 7-acre shopping center. 

“I tell my kids work hard, and then when you grow up, you won’t have to work like mommy,”[1] said Lee Lee, who works 15-hour shifts, 7 days a week.  She supports her four children, two of whom are students in the University of California system. 

But, as she has sadly learned the hard way, it’s no longer the case in the United States that the government will respect your property rights.

In August 2005, the City first threatened to take the Lees’ property against their will by eminent domain, kicking them out for the benefit of other business owners.  In May 2006, less than one year later, tax-hungry city officials did just that, evicting them from a store that is not only geographically significant for business reasons, but also for personal reasons.  They shuttle their 11-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son to and from school very near their old location.

Lee Lee said, “I don’t know what to do…. All my dreams have disappeared.”[2]

As if getting evicted for no other reason other than somebody else wants their land and has more political clout is not bad enough, the Planning Commission denied them a permit for a new location in a second commercial center.  Another liquor store, day-care center, church and apartment building are near there, and the City says the Lees’ store would be too close.

Instead, after taking their store by force, Riverside officials provided the Lees with a list of vacant stores.  But the Lees say those were either too far for the customer-base they have built up over almost two decades in business or simply too small. 

Meanwhile, the couple’s appeal to the Riverside City Council just to obtain a permit for their new location of choice will be considered, but only after they pack up their store, place their belongings in storage, and move out. 

As this situation emphasizes, eminent domain abuse does not just affect property; it affects people—honest, hardworking citizens who simply want to keep what they own.

Find out more information about eminent domain abuse in California.

[1] Joan Osterwalder, “Refugees Again; Shopkeepers must move out of their store,” Press Enterprise (Riverside, CA), May 13, 2006, at B1.

[2] Ibid.