A town is working to “demolish a working-class neighborhood” by seizing 354 homes and passing the land off to a private commercial developer. Using federal dollars and the highly-abused power of eminent domain, the city intends to evict multitudes of families to make way for economic progress.
The community under fire is called “Pleasant Ridge.” It contains hundreds of small homes that were built during World War II as military housing. Today the homes are privately-owned and contain working-class and poor families, many of which have owned their homes for decades.
The City of Charlestown intends to demolish the community in order to allow new commercial and residential real estate to be built in its place — privately-owned real estate. The city declared its intentions in June 2014, when it applied to the state for permission to use eminent domain and for $5.3 million in “Hardest Hit Funds,” a federal grant program administered through Indiana’s Blight Elimination Program (BEP). The land grab might not have been economically feasible if not for being directly subsidized and incentivized by the federal government.
Protests against the looming seizure have persisted for months, and Pleasant Ridge formed its own neighborhood association this summer to coordinate opposition. The government’s decision on the project is supposed to be made in November or December.
The perilous power of eminent domain has been in use for as long as governments have existed, but it was traditionally (and constitutionally) constrained to projects involving “public use” of the land. These might have included roads or government facilities.
In 2005, however, the U.S. Supreme Court egregiously ruled that it was “constitutional” for a city to seize homes for the benefit of private developers (see: Kelo v. City of New London). The benefits of “economic development” have been henceforth recognized to trump private property rights in the USA. In other words, people can be involuntarily kicked off land they own free-and-clear, if government bureaucrats believe another private party could use it to bring in more tax revenue for the city.
The City of Charlestown has been further justifying its authoritarian maneuver by claiming that the Pleasant Ridge community is “blighted” and full of drugs, crime, and “transients.” Officials claim building retail stores and new homes would be an improvement to Charlestown.
Residents contest these allegations, striking blows at the city’s credibility. And, even if the claims were found to contain shades of truth, they would not morally excuse the wholesale violation of any family’s right to be secure in their own private property.
“I’ve never had any trouble in this neighborhood, not one problem,” said resident Ellen Keith, who has lived in the community since 1968 and raised a family there. “The mayor wants to say that we have a crime and drug problem. … I guess because we’re a poor neighborhood, they want to label it like that.”
“We’re not transients. We’re real people,” Mrs. Keith continued. “These people are my real neighbors, and I love my neighbors. … My house is not for sale.”
The use of eminent domain comes with compensation to the evicted landowners. As the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, “No person shall be… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
The City of Charlestown has proclaimed that a paltry sum of $6,000 per home is the amount of “just compensation” that will be administered to the Pleasant Ridge refugees if the land grab takes place.
The nonprofit law firm Institute for Justice (IJ) has taken up the cause of Pleasant Ridge, leading the charge to defend the private property rights of the community.