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The Famous Mister ED
Remember Mister Ed, that talking horse of TV yesteryear? Over time a lot surfaced about Ed. Some of it tabloid stuff. But you know the saying-- no smoke without fire. Allegedly, in the show's early episodes, Ed was really a zebra painted to look palomino. Ed got away with the dye job thanks to the visual limitations of black & white television. Though the "ED" covered here is of a different stripe, false appearances do figure in.

Eminent domain (ED) is the right of local, state and federal government to claim private property in the name of the public good. Owners receive "fair market value". ED has reasonable uses, such as the building of roads and bridges. But uses are broadening. Governments now use ED to clear the way for private economic development. ED is also applied as final solution to urban blight. Inner city neighborhoods that languish in the doldrums are a political embarrassment. But grand plan projects make politicians look visionary. Up and doing. And since public funding flows more smoothly into redevelopment projects sped by ED, it's a win win situation. Though maybe not for the residents of targeted nabes.

ED is frequently invoked as cure for neighborhood drug trade: the "bad" people will be driven out and the "good" will be allowed to return to new sheetrock Edens. Ones built by nationally active non-profit developers in concert with local government. Since local pols know who on the home front is naughty or nice, they make the call as to who returns to the new/old neighborhood. Yet when ED nabes were slipping down hill, these same pols were incapable of weeding out slumlords whose buildings were drug warrens. Heck-- some even had trouble keeping police on the streets outside those warrens. Much less busting up the businesses within. But that's another can of worms. Back to that Santa-like knowledge of naughty and nice.

Most local pols do know nice. Nice people put your election signs in their windows and write letters to the local paper praising your name. They make nice campaign contributions. But naughty people nag and complain. They remember politicians are public servants and if the service sucks, they don't tip. Nice people from ED nabes do deserve "fair" market value or a slice of revitalization pie. But the naughty? A pox on their house!

Expanding governments' ability to invoke eminent domain ignores the political taste for payback. And when ED is used as blight fighter and component of massive, public funded redevelopments, it provides financial incentive to let things slide. No need to make city services and code enforcement reach into the inner reaches of inner cities: deterioration will ultimately prove more profitable. ED is also a giant eraser. It can wipe out the blots of other, failed revitalizations-- bulldozing empty HUD bucked commercial strips that didn't provide the projected jobs, or the rows of "owner occupied" two family homes that turned into strip mine rentals or were flipped to an FHA fare thee well.

Also consider what constitutes "blight". Those who say they know it when they see it, might be surprised to discover that in the Scenic Park neighborhood of Lakewood, Ohio it means not having an attached two car garage, or central air conditioning, or three bedrooms and two bathrooms. In late September, Scenic Park and Lakewood were featured on CBS's "60 Minutes". Lakewood is a post industrial town of 56,000 with a shrinking tax base. Though many of its citizens (including the former mayor) live in homes similar to those in Scenic Park, Scenic Park has something extra. It hugs the shores of scenic Lake Erie. Scenic Park generated private developer interest. But only if delivered shovel ready. Scenic Park, with a population of roughly 1000, is being pressured to throw itself on the sword of eminent domain, in order to lift Lakewood out of its financial difficulties. The pressure is coming not only from Lakewood's mayor and city council, but from the Lakewood school district and citizens living in other sections of the city. Even from a few people within Scenic Park-- who hope to make more money selling their homes to government than they would on the open market.

So far Scenic Park's demise has been beaten back at the ballot box. Though maybe only temporarily. In mid November, Lakewood voters defeated the use of ED by a slim margin. A recount is required. Even if Scenic Park survives, the community of Lakewood has been sundered. A bag of much needed gold was dangled before its eyes. To get it, all citizens had to do was feed their neighbors to ED. Who knows in what city ED might knock next, using the same broad criteria employed in Lakewood? If the specter of ED is raised in enough cities, it will undermine belief in the stability of urban home ownership. Though property flippers will be snapping up buildings left and right, anticipating taxpayer buyouts. While they anticipate nary a repair will be made or rehab launched.

Eminent domain dramas play out around the nation. Some state laws give ED a leg up. Ohio for instance, not only allows local governments to use the right of eminent domain on behalf of for- profit entities: that right can be transferred to the entities themselves. In many places non-profit groups are scrambling for the right to invoke ED in the name of enlightened planning. ED wars range from large to small. Scenarios vary. Some pit old, bread and butter businesses against new, upscale ventures. Big buildings against bigger buildings. Strip malls against mega malls. Some even revolve around matters of taste. Don't like your neighbor's aluminum siding? Find kindred spirits and pull a few strings at city hall. The most socially destructive ED wars pit neighbor against neighbor. Or neighborhood against neighborhood.

The latter most typically develop when cities launch ED as "fix" for a poor neighborhood. What's said to be at stake is not only the future of the targeted neighborhood, but of surrounding or nearby ones. Over the years, as conditions in the poorest inner city neighborhoods proved recalcitrant, a sea change took place in urban planning. A theory emerged which posited the best hope for cities was to concentrate public resources on borderline neighborhoods, ones that might tip over into slums. These neighborhoods were seen as still having sufficient social fabric to respond to treatment. They were also the neighborhoods judged most capable of attracting an educated middle class. Particularly if encouraged by government funded or supported home ownership programs. Many of these "urban homesteaders" became plugged into developing their neighborhood's real estate. Largely through organizations characterized as "non profit" which rely heavily on government support. A politically and financially sophisticated New Urban class formed. Despite the idealism of some, and rhetoric celebrating a broad sense of civitas, New Urbanism is essentially a real estate driven movement. When ultra local interests seem threatened by someone else's neighborhood, it's goodby big city and hello ED.

The willingness to use the government force of eminent domain to "fix" poor neighborhoods reflects their increased social and economic marginalization-- which has run parallel with the focus on transitional areas. A theoretical impasse has been reached as to what can be done to truly change the most hard hit communities. Old approaches haven't worked and new ones are unthinkable. Too many urban players are entrenched in the financial pockets of the old, or cling to ideological constructs which bear little relation to real life in hard hit communities. And since manufacturing left town, no new economic engine has come down the pike sufficiently powerful to lift enough of the under class into the middle class.

The marginalization of poor neighborhoods holds true across race lines. ED steamrolls left-behind blue collar whites as surely as it blacks out black. The secret dream of New Urbanism is that these intractable human "problems" will just disappear. Or go elsewhere. Leaving a few specimens behind as HUD bait. Some might also bus tables at sidewalk cafes. Though out of work actors have more cache. Visit any of the cities held up as prime examples of New Urban revitalization, be they West or East Coast, and what immediately jumps out are social divisions so rigid they carry a hint of caste. Behind latte strips skulk the underemployed, hanging on social services and their allotted "affordable" housing. Seeking the last lunch counter that doesn't call a doughnut a beignet.

The growing use of eminent domain also reflects the clout of the real estate economy. Some say it's become the foremost economic game in the nation. In Lakewood, Ohio there is no other notable engine of revenue growth. This particular engine, hand in glove with government, demands that the people of Lakewood toss their neighbors overboard in the name of the public good. If that's not a zebra painted up like a horse I don't know what is.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

If you want more of the famous Mister ED, visit the following link to RentWars.Com, a NYC based site that covers housing issues. "Will Eminent Domain Swallow an Albany Neighborhood?" is my take on an ED case currently unspooling in upstate New York.

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Copyright (c) 2003 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.


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