By Christina Walsh
June 23 marked the five-year anniversary of the death and re-birth of property rights in America. On that fateful morning five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Kelo decision and told tax-hungry government officials and land-hungry developers that they could take property that does not belong to them. Emboldened by the decision, the next day officials began seizing perfectly fine properties for redevelopment. Within one year of the Kelo ruling, the rate of these takings had tripled.
But that didn’t last long—and what followed was an unprecedented citizen backlash.
Kelo angered Americans, who were universally shocked to learn that, in the “land of the free,” private property could be seized for luxury condos and upscale retail. Polls demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of Americans were opposed to eminent domain for private gain. Although eminent domain abuse was an ongoing problem before Kelo (as documented in IJ’s Public Power, Private Gain report), this decision thrust the issue onto the front pages of newspapers nationwide and into every American’s living room.
As soon as Kelo was handed down, IJ’s Castle Coalition launched our Hands Off My Home campaign, dedicated to changing state laws. All told, IJ has helped guide 43 states to tighten their eminent domain laws to better protect property rights post-Kelo. In addition, nine state supreme courts have rejected the use of public power for private gain while only one has followed the decision.
With the launch of the campaign’s activism component, we hit the road running and held training sessions across the country to better educate property owners and activists to fight their own New London-style government Goliaths and illegitimate landgrabs. So far, IJ has held 67 workshops at the local, regional, state and national levels, training well over 1,000 community activists. Since Kelo, these activists have defeated 48 projects and proposals that threatened to use eminent domain for private development. These victories, seen as impossible prior to Kelo, have now become the norm.
Our most recent victory comes from California, where a group of property owners in San Pablo mobilized against the city’s proposal to reauthorize the use of eminent domain on properties comprising more than 90 percent of the city. Local residents invited the Castle Coalition to speak at a community forum, and in the following weeks, they protested at public hearings, drawing hundreds of supporters. When the city could no longer take the heat, it tried to indefinitely postpone its vote; these activists would not stand for that. On the same night they planned to authorize the project, the city council voted instead to ban eminent domain for private development. This demonstrates the power of the grassroots in the wake of Kelo: Without setting foot in a courtroom, property owners can protect and keep what they have worked so hard to own.
These activists demonstrate that every single one of us has the power to mobilize a block, a neighborhood, a city, a state or even our nation to fight and defeat injustice.
Christina Walsh is the Institute’s director of activism and coalitions.