Civil Rights Implications of Eminent Domain Policies and Practices in Alabama

This Wednesday, the Alabama Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will host a meeting on the “Civil Rights Implications of Eminent Domain Policies and Practices in Alabama.”

The meeting comes as property owners in the state have begun to notice local municipalities using the state’s blight laws to condemn properties in order to prevent privately-funded development in minority communities.

In an op-ed published yesterday, David Beito, chair of the state’s Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commision on Civil Rights, told the story of two Alabama property owners who are fighting their local municipalities, whose officials wish to take the properties for private development.

Jimmy McCall wanted to build his “dream house,” but Montgomery officials condemned the property upon which he was building after they put up numerous bureaucratic roadblocks that delayed the construction of the home. According to Beito, McCall was confused by Montgomery’s rationale for taking the property: McCall’s property was “blighted” and a “public nuisance,” even though he was building a brand new home.

Even after negotiating a timeline with McCall to finish the home, Montgomery officials sought a court-ordered demolition of the work McCall had already done and took the property without any need to give compensation. According to Beito, when McCall appealed to the same court, the judge admitted the city had misled her and told city officials they had to pay McCall for the property. The city has gone back to court, and McCall continues to fight for his property there.

Elsewhere in Montgomery, Jim Peera, whose own property is threatened by city officials, has found other Montgomery property owners—most from minority neighborhoods—affected by the city’s abuse of the state’s blight laws. Peera owns an apartment building in Montgomery and would like to renovate it to create low-income housing for senior citizens, but as with McCall, city officials have blocked his plans to develop because they have plans of their own for the site. Like McCall, Peera is still battling the city of Montgomery in the courts despite prior judicial victories.

McCall and Peera have the financial ability to fight back in court, but it appears that Montgomery may be going after the easiest targets: minority areas where property owners may not have the resources to defend their property. Those areas are most susceptible not only to the loss of material goods but also more intangible but important aspects of life rooted by property rights. As Dick Carpenter and John Ross wrote in Victimizing the Vulnerable, “Those often least-equipped to represent their own interests in the face of the use of eminent domain and their eventual displacement through this power, inequitably bear not only an economic burden but also a socio-cultural one through the loss of social networks and support systems inherent in neighborhoods, small businesses and churches.”

Wednesday’s meeting is open to the public and will be an opportunity for Alabama property owners affected by eminent domain to speak out about the abuse of their property rights.

What: “Civil Rights Implications of Eminent Domain Policies
and Practices in Alabama,” sponsored by the Alabama Advisory Committee
to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

When: Wednesday, April 29, 2009, 9am-5pm

Where: Troy University – Montgomery Campus
Whitley Conference Hall – Gold Room
231 Montgomery Street
Montgomery, AL 36104