Real property in the United States is deeply entrenched in constitutional statutes that protect the rights vested through ownership.  The vast web of legal control is designed to support private enjoyment and curtail unnecessary interference from the government.  These fundamental characteristics of American property law can create enormous obstacles for cities and towns striving to remedy issues of property abandonment and vacancy.  Abandoned properties often slip into a state of legal limbo because the motivation of ownership has been lost through financial hardships, or diluted by the anonymous nature of institutional investment vehicles.  This is where the powerful yet controversial tool of eminent domain comes into play.  The Kelo backlash has put shrinking cities in a difficult position in that eminent domain is a critical component to redeveloping vacancy induced blight on a neighborhood scale.  As noted in a previous post, the East Baltimore Development project run by EBDI has created a very equitable relocation program for displaced residents of the Middle East Baltimore neighborhood.  This relocation program is just one several components that make the East Baltimore project a model for effective Kelo prescribed eminent domain authority.  The foundation of the east Baltimore model is community involvement. Neighborhood residents have substantial interaction with the project in all phases. Numerous channels of communication have been established, and multiple organizations such as the resident-formed Save Middle East Action Committee (SMEAC) and the Annie E Casey Foundation ensure resident voices are heard.  These measures have created an open and collaborative dialogue between EBDI and neighborhood residents.  While progress has been made, statutory reform is required to make the East Baltimore model the standard rather than an outlier.  As Jim Kelly, director of the Community Development Clinic at the University of Baltimore puts it, ‘if eminent domain is ever to play its essential role in a just redevelopment of a severely deteriorated urban neighborhood, then the rights of residents to plan the redevelopment and remain in the redeveloped community must be guaranteed by law.”

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Last week, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing spoke about his plan for downsizing the city during an interview with a local radio station, which sparked conversations about the practical and legal implications of downsizing Detroit.

Mayor Talks Downsizing: Mayor Bing announced that his plan will involve relocating residents from desolate neighborhoods to more stable areas of the city. This approach breaks from the city’s past practice of putting resources where the need is greatest, or evenly distributing funds across the city. He said,  “You can’t support every neighborhood …Those communities that are stable, we can’t allow them to go down the tubes.”

Community Group Weighs In: A few days later, the Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD) weighed in on downsizing. CDAD released its proposed framework for how the Mayor’s administration  should downsize the city. The report, Neighborhood Revitalization Strategic Framework, recommends creating eleven categories for development – ranging from traditional residential areas that preserve older single-family homes, to naturescape areas that convert vacant lots into low-maintenance greenspace, to urban homesteads with older houses on large lots where many city services would no longer be provided. CDAD envisions a Detroit that is more sustainable, with a focus on social equity, environmental integrity, and economic prosperity.

Local Attorney Discusses Legality of Downsizing: Mayor Bing’s downsizing plan will likely face legal challenges, namely the legality of cutting off city services to particular neighborhoods and the use of eminent domain. Yet local eminent domain attorney Alan Ackerman says the downsizing plan is constitutional – because it’s not an economic issue, but rather one of public safety.

Given a 2006 amendment to the state constitution, local governments looking to seize a property must prove that it is blighted and will be for public use. Ackerman believes that Detroit can convincingly make this argument. “Government is there to give basic services to the citizenry. Detroit cannot do that with the present plans of where buildings do and do not exist, he said. “Therefore, to properly apportion police and other public safety you have to remove that house because it blights the rest of the city.