Orange County Register: Redevelopment creates slums

house-wrecked.gifOver the weekend, The Orange County Register published a piece examining the result of Santa Ana, Calif.’s, redevelopment efforts.

According to the Register, Santa Ana spent more than $22 million purchasing properties with the threat of eminent domain in a neighborhood east of downtown for redevelopment project. Today, the neighborhood once home to families is now filled with abandoned houses and vacant lots with no development.

Not surprisingly, Santa Ana went after low-income property owners like Carol Blair, who owned the house in which her grandmother grew up. They received letters threatening eminent domain; strangely, city officials don’t know how that happened.

As the Register‘s article reports:

City files reviewed by the Register show that at least 14 households received similarly worded letters before agreeing to sell to the city. That represents nearly one-third of the sales in the past 10 years.

City officials said they could not remember or could not explain those letters, especially because the City Council never authorized the use of eminent domain in that area. Some suggested there may have been a tax benefit for those who sold under the threat of eminent domain, but the letters make no mention of that.

Ream, the city’s top executive, said he did not remember those letters, most of which were signed by a housing manager who no longer works for the city. “We absolutely decided that we weren’t going to use condemnation,” Ream said.

Nelson, who now oversees redevelopment in the city, also said she did not remember the letters. “We never really threatened to condemn anyone’s property,” she said. “It was never that we were going to condemn if somebody didn’t sell to us.”

Despite glib and obtuse attitude of city officials, property owners took the threat seriously. After all, who wouldn’t if you were at risk of losing your home? (However, it’s not surprising, for in the eyes of city officials in many places, “it’s just a house.”) You’ll have to read the entire article to see how seriously property owners took the threat of eminent domain.

And The Register minced no words in an editorial published later, saying, “Sunday’s front-page Register investigation, ‘Redevelopment’s underbelly,’ makes clear what we have long argued: California’s redevelopment agencies squander tax dollars, destroy lives and, at the end of the day, often make worse the neighborhoods they promise to revive.”

The editorial also demolishes the argument that since the city didn’t actually file for eminent domain in a number of cases it didn’t use it. As the original article shows, it didn’t need to follow through because just telling property owners eminent domain was possibility was enough to get the desired outcome: property in the city’s hands to be transferred to a developer.

Again, the editors are frank: “As anti-eminent-domain attorney Chris Sutton often explains, muggers rarely pull the trigger on their guns before people turn over their wallets.”

As for Santa Ana, the city recently had another massive redevelopment-like program, even though this one has gone nowhere. That plan has been shelved for the time being. Santa Ana’s redevelopment project has been a massive failure: victimizing the vulnerable, destroying a neighborhood, wasting millions of taxpayers’ dollars, being taken advantage of by savvy investors, and then doing nothing–in fact, doing the exact opposite of what they said they would do.
Here, as in so many other redevelopment situations, with its arbitrary and ill-conceived planning and tendency to view property owners as obstacles, government has been the problem, and most definitely not the solution.