Tag Archives: New London

Richmond, Calif., Eminent Domain, and the Problems of Political Privilege

Sign Of The Times - ForeclosureRichmond, California is now moving forward with a proposal to use eminent domain to acquire more than 600 “underwater mortgages” (mortgages with unpaid balances greater their properties’ market value).

Eminent domain has long been used by governments for various public uses, such as highways, roads, and public utilities.  More recently this has been extended to include shopping mallsbusiness parks, and professional sports stadiums. However, while contemplated by other cities, eminent domain has never been used for the purpose of seizing mortgages. Richmond would be the first city to actually carry out such a plan.

On its face, the plan is straightforward. The city has offered to buy these underwater mortgages at discounted rates from the banks and investors currently holding these mortgages. If the offers are rejected, the city will use eminent domain to force the sale of these mortgages to the city. The city will then write down the debt, refinancing the loans for amounts much more in line with current home values.

While the stated objective of this plan is to provide mortgage relief to homeowners hurt by the most recent housing crises, the plan is rife with opportunities for political privilege and favoritism.  Ilya Somin, a law professor at the George Mason University School of Law, has laid out several problems involved with this scheme:

  • Far from benefiting low-income people as intended, the plan will actually harm them. Much of the money to condemn the mortgages and pay litigation expenses will come from taxpayers, including the poor. Most of the poor are renters, not homeowners, so they cannot benefit from this program. But renters do indirectly pay property taxes through the property taxes paid by their landlords, a cost which is built into their rent.
  • The program would also enrich those who took dangerous risks at the expense of the prudent. It isn’t good policy to force more prudent taxpayers to subsidize the behavior of people who took the risk of purchasing high-priced real estate in the midst of a bubble. Doing so will predictably encourage dubious risk-taking in the future.
  • Prudent Richmonders will also lose out from this policy in another way. If lenders believe that the city is likely to condemn mortgages whenever real estate prices fall significantly, they will either be unwilling to lend to future home purchasers in Richmond, or only do so at higher interest rates. That will hurt the local economy and make it more difficult for Richmonders to buy homes.
  • We should also remember that eminent domain that transfers property to private parties is often used to benefit the politically powerful at the expense of the poor and the weak. In Kelo v. City New London (2005), a closely divided Supreme Court ruled that government could take private property and transfer it to influential business interests in order to promote “economic development.” As a result, multiple New London residents lost their homes for a “development” project that still hasn’t built anything on their former property eight years later. Property owners lost their rights and the public has yet to see much benefit. The Richmond policy would create another precedent to help legitimate future Kelos.

You can read Somin’s article here.

It should be noted that there is a legal challenge underway as banks and investors argue that the city’s plan is unconstitutional. However, regardless of the plan’s legality, it is clear that it will do little to support economic development, aid the housing market, or support future investment in the local economy. It seems more about using these mortgages to privilege the few at the expense of the many.

Opportunity for States to Protect Land Use

This post originally appeared at Market Urbanism, a blog about free market solutions to urban development challenges.

If this season’s political campaign rhetoric has demonstrated anything, it’s that governors love to take credit for job creation. What I haven’t seen any governor mention, though, is that there is huge opportunity for economic growth in relaxing zoning codes. Most obviously, allowing new opportunities for infill development will create construction jobs. More significantly though, in the long run, cities allow for faster economic growth (and job growth) than other locations.

The regulations that prevent cities from growing keep economic progress below what it otherwise would be. While researchers disagree over whether population density or total population is the variable that is most significantly correlated with economic growth, either way zoning plays an important role in holding back job growth, providing policymakers who are willing to deregulate with opportunities to improve their competitive standings next to other cities.

Political incentives stand in the way of this growth opportunity, however. Most zoning restrictions benefit a city’s current residents at the expense of potential residents. For example, minimum lot size requirements serve to raise the price of homes, preventing low-income people from moving into neighborhoods that current residents wish to keep exclusive. By changing this current order, policymakers risk losing the support of their homeowning constituents, and interest likely to be better organized than renters and potential city residents. Limitations on housing supply raise the value of existing homes, artificially raising the value of residents’ assets, which homeowners strongly fight to protect.

At the local level, policymakers are therefore incentivized to privilege homeowners’ interests at the expense of broad economic growth. At the state level however, the incentives may be different, such that economic growth may benefit state policymakers more than protecting home values. State policymakers have constituents who live in a wide variety of municipalities, some where land use restrictions are less binding in some than others. Additionally, homeowners will face greater challenges in organizing to support artificially propping up home values at the state level compared to the municipal level. State policymakers could therefore benefit themselves by setting limits on the how much municipalities are permitted to restrict development. Importantly, limiting the degree to which municipalities can restrict development does not force density; rather, it allows developers to provide more density if residents demand it.

California legislators considered a bill of this model earlier this year which would have limited cities’ abilities to set parking requirements in neighborhoods where transit is widely available. As Stephen explained, this bill came under criticism from both the American Planning Association and the Reason Foundation, both citing the need for local control of land use. However, this misses the key role of higher level governments within a federalism model.

After the Supreme Court decided in Kelo v. City of New London that municipalities have the power to use eminent domain for economic development, 44 states adopted amendments to protect their citizens from eminent domain for non-public use to various degrees. States did not have this type of reaction to Euclid v. Ambler, which set the precedent allowing cities to create zoning codes, but there is nothing stopping them from setting limits on cities’ zoning power now.  Federal and state governments have a role to set a floor of freedom for all of their residents, which gives states an opportunity to set limits on how much their municipalities can restrict land use.

Limiting Eminent Domain Authority for the States

In June 2005, the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo vs. City of New London extended the power of eminent domain by allowing governments to condemn private property and transfer it to others for private economic development. This decision sparked a great deal of controversy and its repercussions and implications have been widely studied (see for example, the work by Ed Lopez and Bruce Benson).

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved a measure that would limit government’s use of eminent domain. Specifically, the Private Property Rights Protection Act Act (H.R. 1433) would prohibit:

States and localities that receive Federal economic development funds from using eminent domain to take private property for economic development purposes. States and localities that use eminent domain for private economic development are ineligible under the bill to receive Federal economic development funds for 2 fiscal years.

When the bill was first introduced in 2011, the Honorable Trent Franks outlined its importance with the following statement:

We must restore the property rights protections that were erased from the Constitution by the Kelo decision. Fortunately, they are not permanently erased. Let us hope. John Adams wrote over 200 years ago that, ‘‘Property must be secured or liberty cannot exist.’’ As long as the specter of condemnation hangs over all property, arbitrary condemnation hanging over all property, our liberty is threatened.

There were many testimonies given throughout the hearing that pointed to the strengths and the weaknesses of H.R. 1433. Much of the economic literature suggests, however, that in general placing strong limits on eminent domain authority has substantial benefits for economic growth development, and prosperity. I think Ed Lopez, Carrie Kerekes and George Johnson (2007) sum up the importance of limiting this authority particularly well, as they write:

High taxes, excessive regulation, and loosely limited eminent domain powers are all tools of central planning and government control of the economy. Under these policies property rights are insecure, which distorts incentives for making good resource use decisions, discourages using assets as collateral for beneficial investments, and forfeits the dynamic benefits that emerge out of capitalism…Taxes, regulation, and takings through eminent domain decrease the security of property rights; therefore, these government infringements should be limited.

Empire State of Mind

New York’s highest court recently decided two separate cases that centered around eminent domain abuse and the Fifth Amendment. In late November, the court allowed basketball tycoon Bruce Ratner to appropriate a good sized section of a Brooklyn, furthering his plan to move the New Jersey Nets franchise to a new arena. Last week, the intermediate appeals court stopped Columbia University’s attempt to gobble up much of the Manhattanville neighborhood north of Midtown. [Corrected 12/08.]

These cases highlight just how much of a mess eminent domain proceedings are in the wake of 2005’s U.S. Supreme Court decision Kelo v. City of New London. Supreme Court decisions are no stranger to controversy, but the outrage surrounding Kelo transcended party or ideology, and led to forty-three states adopting restrictions on their own eminent domain powers.

In the Brooklyn case, the issue is identical to Kelo. Bruce Ratner wants to tear down a significant portion of a vibrant neighborhood, and replace it with private economic developments including office towers, a shopping complex, and a basketball arena, which will likely be financed with a significant public subsidy.

Reason Magazine‘s Damon Root has an excellent analysis of the private property rights that Ratner and the Empire State Development Corporation trampled over: Continue reading

Legislative Action Against Kelo

In Texas, House Joint Resolution 14 could give voters the opportunity to increase the security of the state’s property owners, pending passage in the State Senate, which already passed a separate, weaker bill.  Currently, under precedent set by the Supreme Court case Kelo v. the City of New London, states can take ownership of property under their eminent domain powers by demonstrating merely that government ownership would offer “public benefit” as opposed to being required to prove “public use.”

The Institute for Justice explains that  HJR 14, which passed unanimously in the Texas House of Representatives, could potentially improve the state’s policy environment:

Under Kelo, a government is free to take your home or business and give it to anyone who might create more jobs or pay more taxes with your land than you do.  HJR 14 fixes Kelo in Texas by making it clear that “public use” means a use of the property by the government, the condemning authority or the public at large.

This action to strengthen the rights of Texas property owners contrasts with movements in some U.S. cities, including Cleveland and Flint, which are considering planned shrinkage as a way of dealing with mortgage foreclosures. City planning authorities in these cities tout the benefits of confining development to a more compact area because it would allow public services and infrastructure to be provided at lower cost.

However, this policy comes with negative incentives for property owners which these planners are ignoring.  If a locality’s residents begin to fear that their government, rather than protecting their property, may seize it to put it to use for the “public benefit” (which poses a much lower burden than “public use”), private investment, not to mention faith in good governance, will decline. If it passes, HJR 14 will allow policy makers (and policy researchers) to gather evidence across municipalities as to the costs and benefits of using eminent domain for public benefit takings, as some cities outside of Texas begin to employ this policy measure more heavily.