Imagine some government entity leaving a note on your automobile which reads: “Your car is a piece of junk. If you don’t demolish it in 45 days, we are going junk it and then send you the bill.”
While this would truly suck, it could be much worse: They could be threatening to demolish your house, instead. And if you live in some of the impoverished areas of Montgomery, Alabama, this is not some hypothetical nightmare, but a very real violation of civil rights in the same neighborhood Rosa Parks once called home.
The Institute for Justice’s Christina Walsh describes the mechanics of these property rights violations in The Daily Caller:
The city decides it doesn’t like your property for one reason or another, so it declares it a “public nuisance.” It mails you a notice that you have 45 days to demolish your property, at your expense, or the city will do it for you (and, of course, bill you).
Your tab with the city will constitute a lien on your property, and if you don’t pay it within 30 days (or pay your installments on time; if you owe over $10,000, you can work out a deal to pay back the city for destroying your home over a period of time, with interest), the city can sell your now-vacant land to the highest bidder.
Alabama law empowers municipalities to do just this. Officials can demolish structures that they determine, “due to poor design, obsolescence, or neglect, have become unsafe to the extent of becoming public nuisances…and [are] causing or may cause a blight or blighting influence on the city and the neighborhoods in which [they are] located.” Keep in mind, so-called standards like “obsolescence” are so vague they can mean anything, so even a well-maintained home that government officials don’t like the look of can be fed to the bulldozers.
“The city is intimidating people,” community activist Karen Jones told ABC News. “They don’t try to give people due process of setting up fines or even putting up a fluorescent poster in the front yard saying, ‘We’re going to demolish your house.’”
It comes as no surprise that the local media hasn’t been all over this issue, leaving national media like The Daily Caller, Fox News, Reason Magazine and ABC News to pick up the story. (I did notify a reporter from the dominant local newspaper tonight, so we will see if they pick it up). Fox has some great photos of the area, BTW. The sort-of-local Birmingham Fox television station ran a pretty good two-minute segment on the topic, as you can see in the YouTube below:
“Property rights are a bulwark of a free society and it saddens me that these rights are often ignored or even threatened by the very government that was created to protect them,” said my friend Shana Kluck while I was assisting with this issue last year. “Considering this is the state where the Civil Rights movement began, it’s time for Alabama to eradicate one of the last bastions of racial inequality and at the same time ensure the protection of property rights for all Alabamians.”
While Alabama has some of the toughest eminent domain laws on the books, this latest twist is far worse than in pre-Kelo days. With eminent domain, at least one receives some compensation for his or her property. With Montgomery’s blight ordinances, low-income property owners get stuck with the bill. It’s almost like lynching people and then sending their families invoices for the cost of the rope.