Eminent Domain Has Become a Way to Give More to the Rich
For years. Long Branch, New Jersey was an economically depressed seaside town. The main pier had burned, vacant lots and boarded-up buildings filled the shore area and not even liquor stores could find enough business to stay open in the most distressed parts of town. The solution? An eminent domain filled revitalization.
For many years, the city of Long Branch has been involved in a massive revitalization project, seizing entire neighborhoods along the shore and giving them to private developers who have built high-end condominiums, apartments and shopping/dining destinations. For the most part, everyone was happy. Until recently.
The city is now planning to seize 36 beachfront homes and turn the neighborhood into another set of luxury condominiums. But the residents are refusing to sell and have started a community organization focused on stopping the city’s efforts. Unfortunately, after the Supreme Court’s recent Kelo v New London decision, the homeowners’ chance of success doesn’t look good.
First let me say that redevelopment of blighted areas can be a very positive local government action. In the four years I’ve lived in Washington, DC, I’ve seen neighborhoods I wouldn’t walk through become neighborhoods I’d take my son to—all because of massive redevelopment projects that used eminent domain to transfer blighted property to private developers.
But the Long Branch, New Jersey neighborhood is not blighted. It’s nothing fancy but the 36 homes involved are well-maintained and the community is strong—as witnessed by their solidarity and activism in the face of losing their homes. Exactly why are these people worth less than the New Yorkers who will come to live in the million dollar condos?
Sure, rich people with their expensive homes and robust spending habits would bring the city more in taxes. But surely the worth of a man or woman is not measured solely in what he or she pays in taxes. Surely a city does not measure its success solely on how many rich people it can attract.
And this is what disturbs me so greatly. Regardless of the constitutionality of these acts, cities are using eminent domain to build housing for the rich. Long Branch isn’t just trying to increase its tax base, its trying to turn its oceanfront into an enclave for the wealthy. They are forcefully taking away the desirable beachfront property of middle-class citizens and handing it over to the rich.
Others will disagree and say the tax revenue generated from these million dollar condos will help the city improve services across the board—that all residents will benefit. Maybe. But I just can’t help but wonder if all these eminent domain redevelopments aren’t just primarily improving the lives of the rich.
Even here in DC where the redevelopment has been beneficial, the new residences going in to these redeveloped areas are designed exclusively for the wealthy. Sure, the neighborhoods are improved with restaurants and stores and clean streets, but only the very rich can live there—the rest just get to visit.
If this were only the free market at work, I’d have no complaint at all—there’s nothing wrong with being wealthy and nothing wrong with using that wealth to live where you want and how you want. But, in these redevelopment cases, government is giving the interests of the rich a big push. Would the free market really leave no housing for the middle class? I don’t think government should actively oppress the rich, but I sure as heck don’t think the rich need any extra governmental help in fulfilling their desires.
There must be a better method of redevelopment that 1) doesn’t abuse eminent domain as is happening in Long Branch and 2) doesn’t focus so exclusively on amenities for the rich. It’s something cities need to be thinking about.