CommunityPam's House Blend

Supremes: cities can seize your house

Eminent Domain is A-OK, says the Supreme Court. What developer paid off these Justices?

A divided Supreme Court ruled Thursday that local governments may seize people’s homes and businesses against their will for private development in a decision anxiously awaited in communities where economic growth often is at war with individual property rights.

The 5-4 ruling — assailed by dissenting Justice Sandra Day O’Connor as handing “disproportionate influence and power” to the well-heeled in America — was a defeat for Connecticut residents whose homes are slated for destruction to make room for an office complex. They had argued that cities have no right to take their land except for projects with a clear public use, such as roads or schools, or to revitalize blighted areas.

As a result, cities now have wide power to bulldoze residences for projects such as shopping malls and hotel complexes in order to generate tax revenue.

The people that will suffer are the working poor who have homes and no political clout as cities mow down those areas for profit. Also caught in the crossfire will be anyone that doesn’t look at a city’s planning and zoning maps before buying a house. You may be moving in right in the path of the next road extension to be built several years down the road, or worse, a Super Wal-Mart. If anyone thinks cities know best and will act solely on behalf of the public good, they are smoking some strong stuff.

Writing for the court’s majority in Thursday’s ruling, Justice John Paul Stevens said local officials, not federal judges, know best in deciding whether a development project will benefit the community. States are within their rights to pass additional laws restricting condemnations if residents are overly burdened, he said.

…Stevens was joined in his opinion by other members of the court’s liberal wing — David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. The bloc typically has favored greater deference to cities, which historically have used the takings power for urban renewal projects that benefit the lower and middle class.

Here in Durham, thriving black and working class neighborhoods (Hayti, Brookstown, Erwin Park, Hickstown and Crest Street communities) were demolished in 1965 to make way for a freeway, “urban renewal” as it were.


Durham’s Biltmore Hotel and the Regal Theater on Hayti’s Pettigrew Street in the 1940s. Hayti was a bustling black business district south of the tracks from downtown Durham. Hayti’s demise came at the expense of “progress” — the Durham Expressway. There were many homes, and over one hundred businesses, including movie theaters, drugstores, the Biltmore, restaurants, barber and beauty shops, cleaners, funeral homes, service stations…gone. (source: Marshall Thompson via Old West Durham web site)

From a feature in the Independent Weekly on St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation/Hayti Heritage Center, which helps preserves the history of the community:

As more and more blacks acquired land in the area extending south and west from the corner of Pettigrew and Fayetteville streets, and a thriving business district and residential neighborhood grew up around it, the church’s membership expanded as well. The congregation quickly outgrew two frame structures before building the brick edifice that still stands today at the crest of Fayetteville Street, overlooking the Durham Freeway.

That it still presides over the southeastern entrance to the city is somewhat of a miracle, for much of Hayti was destroyed in the “urban renewal” of the early 1970s. Gone are the hotels, restaurants, theaters, small businesses and barber shops. Gone, the pool halls and juke joints where Durham’s own brand of the blues rang out day and night. Gone, the equally important original White Rock Baptist Church. Gone, homes large and small–all replaced with “public housing” and a river of concrete, at a social cost still being reckoned.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding