Eminent Domain: Won't you be my neighbor?

Something that was once so safe, the place you ran to when afraid or tired, can be taken
away. Just like that — with a form letter, dressed up as junk mail. But the people on these
two city blocks in Van Nuys have more to lose: One another. Community. 
Marcus Villatoro, Los Angeles Times

It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood…or is it? Have you noticed? It’s not exactly Mr. Roger’s neighborhood anymore. Neighborhoods continue to be shocked by the use or threat of eminent domain, the determination of blight, and the politics of site selections. This is a nationwide problem.

It's a problem in Van Nuys, California, where Marcus Villatoro's house may be condemned along with two other blocks in his neighborhood to build a school:

We will sell "voluntarily" to the district or get involuntarily "condemned," unless the plan changes. My interpretation: Not only can the government take my land without my permission, it can also set the price. And here, between the little streets of Tobias and Willis, Hart and Bassett, it can bulldoze a community that's taken decades to build.

It's a problem in New Orleans, where the gutting of homes has proceeded under the Good Neighbor Plan.  The plan calls for a "neighborhood blitz" whereby representatives of  the Mayor’s Office, the Good Neighbor Plan Task Force, and neighborhood volunteers will walk their neighborhoods to identify properties that are not in compliance with the City’s Ordinance. The so-called "gutting law" was an ordinance passed August 25, 2006, determining procedures that identify whether a nuisance property should be demolished, determined to be blighted, or determined to have been abated. These procedures begin with a notice sent to the last known address for the property owner. Of course, this is ludicrous when the property owner has been displaced and moved out of state in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. See our post of August 27, 2006, on the August 29 "eminent domain" deadline. 

Councilwoman Shelley Midura told The Times Picayune on Good Friday, "The property rights of people who are doing everything to get back are not being respected." Brandon Darby, director of Common Ground, said that the Good Neighbor program will "result in a land grab against low-income people of color."

Typically in eminent domain cases, the displaced owner occupants are assured fair market value and relocation assistance, but these statutes don’t address the real toll on human lives which are torn apart and disrupted in this process. Government can’t replace the relationships that have built up over twenty or more years. These relationships are personal and professional. The dislocated person loses their friends, neighbors, the corner store, the local doctor or pharmacist who has served them and their family over the years. There is a psychological toll on the displaced person which few of us can fathom.

Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, professor at Columbia University, wrote a  treatise "Eminent Domain & African Americans" based on her larger work, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It.  Her study is based on research in African-American neighborhoods in 5 cities affected by urban renewal pursuant to the Federal Housing Act of 1949.  In her treatise, she discusses the concept of  the commons:

Within these neighborhoods there existed social, political, cultural, and economic networks that functioned for both individual and common good. These networks were the “commons” of the residents, a system of complex relationships, shared activities, and common goals.

Dr. Fullilove discusses the loss of a home and why it is so traumatic: the home gathers, protects and situates the family. What the home is to survival,  the "geographical niche," which the neighborhood signifies, is to the combined resources for survival. Thus, a neighborhood is greater than the sum of its individual private properties. Fullilove asks, what is the price of the commons? How is one compensated for the greater loss?  We can understand that an octogenerian, removed from his comfortable environment, suffers. So do we all. Government can't pay for this, and to be sure, it doesn't even consider it in the concept of just compensation. Fullilove states:

Eminent domain has become what the founding fathers sought to prevent: a tool that takes from the poor and the politically weak to give to the rich and the politically powerful. What the government takes from people is not a home, with a small “h”, but Home in the largest sense of the word: a place in the world, a community, neighbors and services, a social and cultural milieu, an economic anchor that provides security during the ups and downs of life, a commons that sustains the group by offering shared goods and services.

There is also a painful wrenching across streets that divide one part of a neighborhood from the part that will be destroyed. Marcus Villatoro so eloquently describes what happened when the neighbors across the street in Van Nuys did not receive notification letters:

Neighbors across our street received no letters. Yet they're as upset as those of us waiting to be condemned. We meet on the sidewalk, something we've done for a dozen years. Because this is that type of neighborhood. We throw block parties a couple of times a year — potato salad and pupusas in my driveway, two barbecues filled with four meats on Ron's patio. We hand over our house keys to one another while on vacation. We're the Latino-Jewish-white-Armenian Wilmas and Bettys, gossiping at the fence. People outside our neighborhood don't see this.

But we do see it. And we see it time and time again. There are clearly many legal issues to be resolved, and legislative reforms to be accomplished.  Yet, there is a higher, moral issue and each of us who is involved in this process is called to reflect upon it.  It is the concept at the core of every major religion in the world, the ethic of reciprocity. And if you do not believe in religion, it is inherent in our shared values, for "neighborhood" is the basis of society as we know it. And what we do here in our time is our legacy.

And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, "Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"

He said unto him, "What is written in the law? How readest thou?"

And he answering said, "`Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself.'"

And He said unto him, "Thou hast answered right; this do, and thou shalt live."

- Luke 10:25-28