September 20, 2010

Yikes! Blight!

We already know that city government can take your home through eminent domain, even if your property will ultimately be given to a developer for an overblown project that may never come to fruition. But I was shocked to learn that the city of Montgomery, Ala., was bulldozing residents’ homes for mere ordinance violations. To add insult to injury, the city then charged residents for the cost of bulldozing. Or perhaps that’s an additional injury.

Radley Balko, of Reason magazine, recently wrote about the reprehensible actions of Montgomery officials in Slate. From the article:

Over the last decade or so, dozens—perhaps hundreds—of homes in Montgomery have been declared blighted and razed in a similar manner. The owners tend to be disproportionately poor and black, and with little means to fight back. [...]

Alabama state law actually forbids the use of eminent domain for private development. Instead, Montgomery deems property blighted based on a section of state law that gives code inspectors wide leeway. The owner must then correct the problem to the satisfaction of the inspectors, or the city will [...] [r]aze the property, bill the owner for the demolition, and then sell the property off to developers if the owner doesn’t pay. If you can’t afford repairs, you may well lose your home.

Terrifying. Not only will the city bulldoze your home for ordinance violations, but you will then have to pay for the destruction, and try to figure out what to do with your newly vacant land. As Balko points out in the article, this is actually worse than eminent domain. If the city takes your property through eminent domain, it at least has to pay for it.

The city of Montgomery has the power to do this by first issuing an ordinance violation citation, and then blighting the property, which enables the city to begin the condemnation process. That blight designation is key. Unfortunately, vague statutory language can enable overzealous city officials to blight property otherwise in good condition.

I used to think of “blight” as a word reserved for the very worst properties — those that are falling down, or, in the case of the city of Saint Louis, buildings that have been hollowed out by brick thieves. However, the city of Saint Louis recently demonstrated that a property can be blighted for any number of reasons. My favorite example, from the massive blighting done to enable the award of $400 million in tax increment financing for a large development project,  is that of New Roots, an urban farm in north Saint Louis that was deemed blighted because of “excessive vegetation.” Also on the egregious blighting list is the ABC news station on 13th Street, which was blighted because the building is more than 30 years old, though the property is appraised at nearly $700,000.

Missouri state statute defines a blighted area as an area which may have:

[...] predominance of defective or inadequate street layout, insanitary or unsafe conditions, deterioration of site improvements, improper subdivision or obsolete platting, or the existence of conditions which endanger life or property by fire and other causes, or any combination of such factors, retards the provision of housing accommodations or constitutes an economic or social liability or a menace to the public health, safety, morals, or welfare in its present condition and use;

Some of the above definitions of blight are fairly concrete, but others are excessively vague. For example, what exactly “constitutes an economic or social liability”? What is a “menace” to “morals”? The vagueness in the referenced statute allows for the blighting of property such as the ABC news station for something pervasive in an old city — older buildings.

Bottom line: The city of Montgomery is a perfect illustration of the fact that a blight designation is not harmless. It can be a step in the direction of taking, or even bulldozing, a person’s home.

A project of the


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