Something is Rotten in Montgomery

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by David T. Beito by David T. Beito

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By all indications, property owners under siege in the city that nurtured the modern civil rights movement. Several witnesses, mostly minorities, came forward on Wednesday to tell their horror stories at the meeting the State Advisory Committee (which I chair) of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The topic of the meeting was “Civil Rights Implications of Eminent Domain Policies and Practices in Alabama.”

The witnesses accused the city of Montgomery is using eminent domain through the back door to systematically seize hundreds of parcels of property. While the state tightened up its blight law after the Kelo decision, the news doesn’t seem to have reached city politicians and bureaucrats. Through local and state blight, tax, zoning, and public nuisance ordinances, they are finding creative ways around any restrictions. In contrast to the standard eminent domain process, under this back door approach, property owners do not have a right to compensation, even in theory. The city seems to be going hog wild with building demolitions. As part of this process, it charges the owners for the costs thus often forcing them to sell at a loss or to abandon their properties. One witness displayed a map (note the pins) showing that the vast majority of demolitions are concentrated in a heavily black, low-income section. Ironically, the targeted area includes Rosa Parks’ old neighborhood. Two especially striking cases of eminent domain through the back door are those of Jimmy McCall and Jim Peera.

The story in the Montgomery Advertiser had the following report:

Peera is the owner of Avon Court Apartments, which he noted was about a block away from where Rosa Parks lived. The city had a portion of the apartment complex demolished after certain units were found to be unsafe.

Peera, who is from Africa, said he had a $1 million plan to revitalize the property and turn it into affordable housing but that the city blocked that project by rezoning the property from multi-family to single-family dwellings.

“This shouldn’t be happening in Rosa Parks’ backyard,” Peera told the committee members.

“I believe it’s what I call the backdoor to eminent domain. It’s all about control,” said Peera, who lives in Atlanta.

In McCall’s case, the black Montgomery resident’s would-be home was torn down before it was finished after the city’s housing codes office found it to be unsafe. He had planned to build his “dream home” on a two-acre property at 3118 Woodley Road.

McCall collects abandoned materials, like Southern Longleaf pinewood and old bricks, and resells them.

He had socked away a collection for himself and was keeping those materials on his property as he worked to build the home.

“This was going to be our dream home, as far as dream houses go,” McCall told the committee. He was wearing a T-shirt that read “Hands off my home.”

It bears repeating that the courts have not backed up the city’s claim that McCall’s home was “unsafe.” In fact, last year, a judge has ordered the city to compensate him for the demolition. He still hasn’t received a cent and faces more appeals. Peera also has won in the courts. McCall and Peera suspect that the city is trying to wear them out through endless litigation.

I have also discussed the McCall and Peera cases in an op-ed for the Tuscaloosa News. While the hearings on Wednesday focused on the situation on Montgomery, other witnesses testified about abuses in the rest of the state. Elizabeth Swain, an elderly black woman, described how developers in Alabaster, in cooperation with local politicians, deployed strong-arm tactics to take land from a small black community to build a shopping complex. Some of this land had been in the same families for generations. Kim Rafferty (who is white) charged that the Birmingham Airport Authority is using “noise” restrictions as a pretext to take surrounding property, thus gutting a low-income neighborhood and destroying property values of the remaining residents.

Because of the seriousness of these allegations, the State Advisory Committee invited politicians from every level (including Governor Riley and his possible Democratic opponent, Artur Davis) to attend. All of the politicians declined with the notable exception of Senator Scott Beason. Beason plans to propose a bill next year to close the remaining loopholes in the state’s eminent domain law. In the meantime, Montgomery’s city fathers appear to be ratcheting up the pressure against McCall and Peera even more.

David T. Beito [send him mail] is a member of the Liberty and Power group blog at the History News Network.

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