Judiciary Committee Considers Bill to Eliminate Eminent Domain Abuses

The House Judiciary Committee’s  Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice held a hearing March 30 regarding the Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2017 (H.R. 1689). The bill, which was sponsored by Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis), would prohibit states from using eminent domain over property to be used for economic development.

The Fifth Amendment provides the constitutional framework for the practice of eminent domain, detailing, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The controversial Kelo v. City of New London Supreme Court case in 2005 determined that seizing a property to be developed and generate increase tax revenue fell under the definition of “public use.” Thus, the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of using eminent domain to transfer property to private developers.
In a dissenting opinion on the case, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote:
“The consequences of today’s decision are not difficult to predict ,and promise to be harmful. So-called ‘urban renewal’ programs provide some compensation for the properties they take, but no compensation is possible for the subjective value of these lands to the individuals displaced and the indignity inflicted by uprooting them from their homes. Allowing the government to take property solely for public purposes is bad enough, but extending the concept of public purpose to encompass any economically beneficial goal guarantees that these losses will fall disproportionately on poor communities.”

The Private Property Rights Protection Act aims to rectify government abuses against private property rights by prohibiting governments from transferring property to private developers. In the hearing, Jeffrey Redburn, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, testified,

“The consequences for people displaced by eminent domain are devastating. They lose not only their homes, but also their neighborhoods, their communities, and their support networks of friends, family, and church. These harms are too often invisible because victims of eminent domain are literally out of sight, displaced and dispersed. In fact, that is exactly the point of eminent domain—getting rid of undesirables”

Also present at the hearing was Tina Barnes, an Indiana woman who risks losing her home due to a federally-subsidized development planned for her neighborhood. Ms. Barnes testified, “TARP funds that were set aside to prevent a financial collapse were being repackaged as grants to states for ‘blight elimination,’ which my City was going to use to drive my neighbors and me out of town.” According to Barnes, the city had falsely designated every home in her neighborhood as blighted in order to seize the homes and sell them to a local developer at “bargain-basement prices.”

William W. Buzbee, a Professor of Law at Georgetown University, noted in the hearing that “disheartening tales” like that of Ms. Barnes are abuses of eminent domain, but are relatively rare. However, researcher Dana Berliner found that in just one year after the Kelo decision, local governments threatened eminent domain or condemned at least 5,783 homes, businesses, churches, and other properties so that they could be transferred to another private party.”

Eminent domain disproportionately threatens poor communities, threatening to displace these individuals and deprive them of their homes, their communities, and their property rights. Worse, the definition of “public use” presented in the Kelo decision means that if a government determines a piece of land could possibly generate more tax revenue in the hands of a different owner, the government has the authority to seize that property.

The International Property Rights Index ranks the United States 15th in the world at protecting property rights, and 22nd in the Protection of Physical Property category. We at Property Rights Alliance hope Congress takes this opportunity to reassert its commitment to property rights as a vital component of liberty and prosperity. The Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2017 provides a much-needed resolution to the harmful consequences of the Kelo decision, and limits the government’s ability to abuse property rights through eminent domain.