Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Property Rights

Reading about the Fort Trumbull eminent domain lawsuit here and here. There are a lot of issues tied up in something like this. For most homeowners, their house and lot are their primary--often their only--financial investment. As far back as the depression era, presidents from Hoover on the right to FDR on the left extolled the virtues of "a nation of homeowners" and passed sweeping measures putting billions of public dollars at stake to protect it. On the other side, there are times when the public, represented by an elected government, legitimately needs to transfer ownership of land in order to facilitate its use in a way that benefits society. Well-known and uncontroversial (in principle) examples include road easements and condemnation of structurally unsound buildings. Less reputably, the power of eminent domain has been used over and over again to clear slums for redevelopment. To condense a lot of modern anthropological research into one runon sentence, many or most such "slums" had been created over time by the systematic denial of mortgages or home equity loans to poor and minority residents by lending institutions who made [improper] use of FHA risk ratings--themselves bastardized from earlier Home Owners Loan Corp. (HOLC) classifications intended to direct federal loan guarantees toward poor homeowners. In other words, redlining turned often-decent neighborhoods into slums by denying residents access to capital, and then subsequently declared them "blighted" in order to evict the residents and build something new. 70s-era Urban Renewal made heavy use of that brand of eminent domain, and the planning profession unfortunately has something of a black mark to this day for its role in that mostly-failed effort.

I suspect cases like the New London one, or this neighborhood clearance in Cincinnati are related far more to zoning and economic development trends (in particular, the fad of deliberately encouraging an imbalance of jobs and housing) than to any nostalgia for public housing, but there's still danger here for planners if we become too strongly identified with those who justify any taking of property under the development mantra of the day. We have enough trouble getting buy-in from the public on a lot of things as it is.