Friday, April 28, 2006

Remarks on Eminent Domain Abuse

My remarks at the eminent domain rally in Albany today:

I welcome this opportunity to speak to you on an issue of common concern to Libertarians and Greens--the use of eminent domain for the benefit of private developers.

This is a fitting location for our topic. Not only are we here on the steps of New York's capitol, behind us is Empire State Plaza, which is often described as one of the most ambitious urban renewal projects in America. In the late sixties and early seventies, thousands of low income homes and small businesses were destroyed, 98 acres of historic downtown Albany destroyed to make room for these empty stretches of concrete.

After many years of authorizing eminent domain for so-called urban renewal projects undertaken by governmental agencies, on June 23rd of last year the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Kelo vs. the City of New London, Connecticut allowing a city to use eminent domain for the benefit of private developers based upon the promise of increased tax revenue to the city.

Exactly two months after the Kelo decision was issued, on August 23, 2005, a huge hurricane formed in the Atlantic. The hurricane came ashore in southeastern Louisiana on August 29 and created devastation all along the coast. The city of New Orleans is now facing urban renewal on a far vaster scale than Empire State Plaza.

Who is going to make the decisions about how New Orleans is rebuilt——the hundreds of thousands of small homeowners, who were evacuated from the city, many of whom do not have enough money to return, most of whom were black——or private developers?

What we are facing here is legalized theft. It is theft from the poor for the rich. Working class and low income homeowners are the primary targets of almost all development schemes. Justice Thomas noted in his dissent to the Kelo decision that the decision encourages victimization of the weak. Justice Thomas further noted that urban renewal projects have long been associated with the displacement of blacks; and that in cities across the country, urban renewal was known as ‘Negro removal'.

Greens in New York have been fighting predatory development plans in which residents and small businesses in minority neighborhoods face mass removal under these new strengthened powers of eminent domain. In Brooklyn, the Park Slope Greens are working with other local activists in the Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn Coalition to head off an attempt by billionaire developer Bruce Ratner to seize homes and businesses in Fort Greene and Prospect Heights.

We need legislation that would require local referendums before eminent domain can be used. We need democratic decision making by the communities that will be affected by the development. Senate Bill 5938 currently pending in the New York Senate would require eminent domain decisions to be subject to approval by a vote of an elected legislative body, but we need to go further than that. We need to allow the residents of the community to make the decision. We need to require a referendum of the voters in the legislative district.

The Kelo decision shows that liberals are as likely as conservatives to side with wealthy and corporate interests. Republican and Democratic officials — including many liberal and progressive Democrats — accept huge gifts from real estate interests that want to clear out neighborhoods for new development. Greens refuse all corporate contributions.

We in the Green Party look forward to working with Libertarian Party members and candidates to protect the rights of ordinary people. We need to form a new spectrum of parties dedicated to protecting the rights of ordinary people and the health of the environment against the parties dedicated to protecting corporate power.

I would like to leave the last word to Jane Jacobs, who died earlier this week. Jacobs worked in New York City to stop the urban renewal projects that threatened Greenwich Village. She strenuously objected to bulldozing low-rise housing in poor neighborhoods and building tall apartment buildings surrounded by open space to replace them.

"There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder," Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, "and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served."

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