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Eminent Domain Abuse
06.24.05
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DAVID BRANCACCIO: NOW on PBS...

Highways, schools, airports — they've got to go somewhere.

Government has always used "eminent domain" to take the land needed for projects in the public interest. Well, the Supreme Court just decided it's OK to take people's land for things like private malls and private condos.

ANNA DE FARIA: To think they're gonna throw me out of my home to put another house on it to put somebody that's wealthy in my spot. And where do I go?

BRANCACCIO: And, with Guantanamo and the treatment of detainees back in the news, what about the treatment of prisoners closer to home? NOW contributor Connie Rice sees some parallels.

CONNIE RICE: Am I saying that our prisons are as bad as Abu Ghraib? No. But do we have conditions that are illegal, unconstitutional and cruel and unusual? Yes.

BRANCACCIO: Welcome.

Welcome to NOW and Norwood, Ohio. This is what's known as 'economic progress' — old buildings coming down, and new ones going up. Right here used to be a modest, middle class neighborhood full of houses and small businesses. As you can see, they're mostly gone now. This neighborhood was taken by local government, you know it as 'eminent domain.' For years, government has used this formidable power to take people's private property when it needed to build public structures. Things like highways or schools. Things that are supposed to benefit everyone.

But check this out: they're not building a road or a school back there — this is going to be a fancy shopping mall and condos, put up by a wealthy developer, not the town.

So let me get this straight, the city seizes your home so that a private business can get the space? It's happening here in Ohio and in cities and towns across the country.

William Brangham produced our report.

ROSE LAROSA: This is my dining room, that my dad bought at Vogels, they're gone now, on Broadway

ANNA DE FARIA: This is my living room.

DENISE HOAGLAND: And in here this is our slash sitting living room,..

BRANCACCIO: Drop in on the residents of this beachfront neighborhood in Long Branch, New Jersey, and you'll meet people who take some serious pride in home ownership.

DENISE HOAGLAND: My husband built these shelves thirteen years ago.

ANNA DE FARIA: And this is one of my bedrooms right-- oh, no, you don't want the vacuum cleaner. Don't get that one.

BRANCACCIO: Most of the residents here have lived in these homes for decades. Some, their whole lives.

LORI VENDETTI: My next door neighbors always ask me how old I am, cause that's how old they know their house is. I'm not saying. I'm not telling you that.

BRANCACCIO: Lori Vendetti grew up right here. Her parents built this house 45 years ago. Vendetti says this is more than a cluster of houses — it's a community.

LORI VENDETTI: You help each other. You might eat over each other's house. You go to each other's barbecues, picnics, birthday parties. I mean it's an extension of our family.

BRANCACCIO: But the city of Long Branch sees these streets differently. They want Lori and her neighbors out. And they want to bring the bulldozers in. Local officials say the city's in a financial pinch, and this property would be a lot more lucrative if it was turned into this: hundreds of high-end condos.

But a lot of residents of these few streets don't want to sell, no matter how much they're offered. In most places, that means the deal is off. But not here. Here, the mayor has said he will invoke the power of eminent domain to force them to sell, and turn the property over to a private developer.

ANNA DE FARIA: I never thought they would be able to take my home away from me. Never in a million years. Never.

BRANCACCIO: Anna De Faria lives alone in her small two bedroom home in Long Branch. She and her husband, Tony, who died 8 years ago, bought this place in 1960.

ANNA DE FARIA: We worked very, very hard to have this little house. Very hard. I was a banquet waitress, and carried ten dinners on my shoulder to make $11 to pay for this house. So we finally did. And we enjoyed every minute of it.

This is our wedding picture. We were married 50 years. We were married in 1946. I made a new life here, my husband and I, my children. So, I don't know.

BRANCACCIO: After years of mortgage payments, De Faria owns her house outright. One of the bedrock principles in our society is that you own your house until you decide to sell it. That is, except in the case of eminent domain.

SCOTT BULLOCK: Eminent domain is one of the most awesome powers a government has at it's disposal — the ability to take your home, your business, your land — is about the most serious things government can do to you, next to putting you in jail.

BRANCACCIO: Scott Bullock is a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, a Libertarian law firm in Washington, DC that's made a name for itself fighting property rights cases.

He points out that eminent domain power comes from the 5th Amendment to the Constitution. The takings clause says, in part, "…nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." Bullock argues that cities and towns today seem to have forgotten that "public use" part.

SCOTT BULLOCK: Eminent domain is increasingly being used for private projects and for private profits. That is a completely illegitimate use of eminent domain. The very reason why we have the "public use" provision in the Constitution is to prevent the government from taking land from A and giving it to B simply because they happened to favor the new owner of the property.

BRANCACCIO: But city officials in Long Branch, New Jersey say that it doesn't matter that they're taking people's homes for private condominiums. Their argument is that those condos will help revitalize the whole town, qualifying them as something of a public good.

But the folks on the 'sharp end' of revitalization aren't always persuaded.

LORI VENDETTI: They want the beach front to become this wealthy community. People that have been here for 44, 50, 60, 70 years, they, they don't want anymore.

ANNA DE FARIA: If they had to build a hospital or a road or something, you know, we wouldn't feel as bad as taking my house, knocking my house down to put a million dollar house on mine. That's what hurts me the most. To think they're gonna throw me out of my home to put another house on it to put somebody that's wealthy in my spot. And where do I go?

BRANCACCIO: Here in Ohio, Carl and Joy Gamble asked themselves the same question three years ago when they opened their local paper to discover that a developer wanted to build a new mall in the city of Norwood. It would go one block to the north of this one. The gambles were stunned: one block north was where they lived.

JOY GAMBLE: We were devastated. We thought, "We don't want to move, we want to stay right here, we are going to stay right here. We're not moving."

And here is in front of our house, these are three neighbors.

BRANCACCIO: The Gambles had bought this two-story stucco home 35 years ago, raised two kids here, retired here. Despite offers, they weren't interested in selling.

They can only show us photos of their house now, because …this is what it looks like today. Thanks to the power of eminent domain, the Gambles were forced out of their house. It now belongs to the developer.

Here's how it went down: in 2002, the developer went to the city asking for an 'urban renewal' study of the Gambles neighborhood. In Ohio, that's one of the first steps toward eminent domain. If the neighborhood is found to be quote-unquote 'blighted', the city can take it for other uses. But the city said no, and told the developer to try and buy out all the homeowners privately. So, the developer canvassed the neighborhood, and got most of the folks interested in selling. But not every home owner. Not the Gambles.

CARL GAMBLE: I made a big sign and stuck it in the yard. It said "if you want this property, you should have bought it in 1969" I don't think they liked that, but it was the truth.

BRANCACCIO: With the development at a stalemate. the city now agreed to the 'urban renewal' study, which the developer paid for.

The study found that no houses in the area were delinquent on their taxes, and none were "dilapidated" - two classic symptoms of blight. The study did note things like weeds on people's lawns, heavy traffic, and dead-end streets. The city decided the neighborhood was 'blighted' and said it could seize the homes under eminent domain.

Scott Bullock took up the Gambles case and tried to get the city's blight-designation overturned.

SCOTT BULLOCK: The Norwood case represents almost a complete buyout of the city's eminent domain authority. The Norwood neighborhood was declared blighted simply because the city wanted to get eminent domain power in order to give the land to a private developer. The blight study and the blight designation in that case was totally a fraud.

BRANCACCIO: Fraud? Bullock tried to prove just that in an Ohio court. Last summer, the court said the city had overreached in calling the Gambles' neighborhood "blighted" -- "an abuse of discretion," they called it. But the court went on to say the area was quote "deteriorating" which is the lowest legal standard in Ohio for justifying eminent domain. The city was allowed to proceed. It was the first time an Ohio court had authorized eminent domain on such a low standard.

MAYOR TOM WILLIAMS: My conscience was clear. I believe, and the people that supported us do believe that it was the right thing to do for the survival of this city.

BRANCACCIO: 'Survival of a city' is a pretty strong statement, but that's what mayor Tom Williams says is at stake here. Norwood is under financial duress - they're running a three million dollar deficit. That, on an annual budget of only $18 million. It's estimated that the new development could net the city two to three million dollars a year in taxes. The mayor says eminent domain was the tool that could to save them.

MAYOR TOM WILLIAMS: I'll give you an example. Prior to sitting down talking to you, we're about ready to lose our copiers.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Your photocopiers?

MAYOR TOM WILLIAMS: Yeah. Right now struggling to make payroll. We owe pension fund monies. We're under a fiscal watch in the state of Ohio. So we're struggling just to keep our heads above water. And it's vital for us to do these developments. It's vital for us to get the earnings tax in to operate this city.

JOY GAMBLE: You take any commercial structure is going to make more money for a municipality than a single family home. So these single family homes have got to go because we're gonna make money with this fabulous shopping center. You don't get much money out of a home, you live in a home. That's, you know, the American dream, living in a home. We lost ours.

BRANCACCIO: Mayor Williams admits that seizing anyone's house against their will is tough to do. But he says, don't forget that almost all the families in the area agreed to sell and leave without a big fuss. The holdouts were a tiny minority — a couple of small businesses, an absentee landlord, and one family: the Gambles.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: But one family is one family. And they had kids who went to junior high and high school in that house. A lot of memories. Did you, even though it was just one, did you have to wrestle with this?

MAYOR TOM WILLIAMS: I made difficult decisions my whole career. You look at the overall benefit to the whole city. And you make your decision based on that. I will tell you for whatever it's worth, that the council who made this difficult decision, were all reelected.

BRANCACCIO: The Gambles are running out of options. A second state court ruled against them. They now live in their daughter's basement in nearby Kentucky. A jury awarded them $280,000 for the forced sale of their home — more than they'd originally been offered — but for now, they've decided not to take the money. And one last injunction is the only thing holding the wrecking ball at bay.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: You invested a lot of time in fighting this, you put up a very strong fight, but most of the houses are gonr now in that neighborhood, and there's yours standing there, why don't you just, frankly, throw in the towel and move on with your life?

JOY GAMBLE: No.

CARL GAMBLE: We made a commitment from day one. We said we'd go all the way, hell with 'em. And we're doing it.

JOY GAMBLE: There's a principle here. We feel we have something worth fighting for. And if we lose, nobody's home is safe, your home won't be safe. Anybody with more money and more power can say, "I want that property." And they can get it.

BRANCACCIO: Just yesterday, the struggles of families like the Gambles got a lot harder. The highest court in the land ruled that cities and towns can take people's homes for private development.

The case involved whether the city of New London, Connecticut was justified in taking 90 homes to make way for a hotel, office space and condominiums. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that private development can serve a greater, public good.

But the court was split, 5 to 4. In her dissent, Justice O'Connor wrote that the beneficiaries of the ruling are quote "likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms."

The court left it up to individual states to define what 'public use' means to them.

LORI VENDETTI: Thanks everyone, for coming.

BRANCACCIO: That last part may be the only hope left for the residents of Long Branch, New Jersey. They've formed a coalition to try and save their 36 homes from demolition. Appealing to the state may be their best shot.

Regular visits at city council meetings have gotten them nowhere. They've been pleading with the mayor to stop the development where it is and leave their homes alone. But so far, nothing.

LORI VENDETTI: The mayor and the city council don't seem-- don't-- they don't want to hear it any more. They don't want to hear that-- that-- your personal stories any more. It's now it's just a business to them. And it's not a business to us.

BRANCACCIO: Mayor Adam Schneider says he was elected to keep Long Branch in business. He says he's tired of being labeled the mayor who throws old ladies out of their homes.

Schneider says the city has turned a lot of wrecky, scary waterfront into these brand new condos and stores. And says almost everyone in town Thinks long branch is better off. And he couldn't have done it without eminent domain.

MAYOR ADAM SCHNEIDER: That's much more in line of what we're doing the removal of urban decay to rebuild an entire town. You take that right away from a town then you're saying that poor towns remain poor towns. That you can't do urban redevelopment.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: So then you say these houses are coming down?

MAYOR ADAM SCHNEIDER: Yes. Absolutely. I don't see-- I don't see the alternative.

BRANCACCIO: But are you seeing urban decay here? Is this really a blighted street? The definitions are slippery.

Anna De Faria says the answer is clear to her. But its not the homeowners who get to make the call.

ANNA DE FARIA: I went around the corner when they were knocking down the-- one-- first house that they did. I stood there and I cried. To think that they can demolish this house. That they can just come and bulldoze it down after we worked so hard for it, my husband and I. I said I wasn't gonna get emotional but I can't help it.

BRANCACCIO: While we've been here in Ohio, it's been a busy couple of days in the news, and here to make sense of it all is one of our regular contributors …

Civil rights attorney Connie Rice just in from Los Angeles. Good to see you.

CONSTANCE RICE: Good to see you, David.

BRANCACCIO: In the news this week, Joint Task Force Gitmo. This is the prison in Guantanamo Bay. Democrats are calling for an independent investigation into abuses there. The White House says no. Spokesman Scott McClellan says, look, there have already been ten investigations into this. And, quote, "People are being held to account." Now you spend a lot of your professional time thinking about prisoner rights issues stateside. What does all this mean to you?

CONSTANCE RICE: David, I'll tell you when we first heard about Gitmo, I thought we don't need to go to Gitmo and we don't need to go to Abu Ghraib. We can find similar parallels, treatment, mistreatment and conditions in our own prisons. Not all of our prisons.

BRANCACCIO: Civilian prisons here?

CONSTANCE RICE: Absolutely.

BRANCACCIO: In what way?

CONSTANCE RICE: Absolutely. I just was in San Quentin. And you rarely go beyond the out buildings because many of the prisons in California I have to ask the guards, "Is it safe today?" Because they're not in control. So much overcrowding. The conditions are horrific.

You have federal judges threatening to take over the entire gulag in and I do call it a gulag because you have so many prisons. And the conditions are so bad. And David, what strikes me is that when I went in there, it was a particularly bad day because this is a very old prison. And what happens is the pipes break down. And on the really bad days, sewage runs down the walls.

BRANCACCIO: Like raw sewage?

CONSTANCE RICE: Raw sewage runs down the walls from floor to floor. You've got medical procedures, dental work being done with no anesthesia. Operations being done with no anesthesia. No sinks. No place to sanitize anything. The other parallels, and you wouldn't think it was happening in 21st century United States. But black hoods.

BRANCACCIO: You mean black hoods like in the Abu Ghraib-- Black hoods. Black hoods. And--

BRANCACCIO: In America prisons? Where?

CONSTANCE RICE: Virginia, maximum security prison. At least as of two years ago, they would immediately put new detainees in black hoods. Sexual humiliation? Well, it's not what we saw in Abu Ghraib. But you do have a rape epidemic which we can't control.

And moreover, when you talk about some of the naked detainees being chained? Well, one of the privatized owners that ran prisons in Utah and in Texas was a consultant to the United States Department of Justice under Attorney General Ashcroft. And one of the prisons that his private company ran actually had to have an investigation of the death of a detainee who was chained naked to a chair. It was called a punishment chair. And he was left for over 14 hours in that chair. And he he died.

Now whatever the outcome of that investigation, you had a naked prisoner chained. So are there connections? There absolutely are. Am I saying that our prisons are-as bad as Abu Ghraib? No. but do we have conditions that are illegal, unconstitutional and cruel and unusual? Yes.

BRANCACCIO: It's a discussion in America that needs to be had at a time when you look at the trends and over the past few decades the prison population in this country has skyrocketed.

CONSTANCE RICE: David, it hasn't just skyrocketed. It's exploded. We have so many human beings in prison. And most of them are there for non-violent crimes. We're taking non-violent people, putting them in these hell hole prisons. They come out violent. And even the Department of Justice statistics show that the people who came in non-violent, 30 percent of them come out violent and when they re-offend it's for a violent offense. And these are people who never did anything remotely violent before they offended.

So what are we doing? We're actually creating and increasing the violence in poor communities and poor rural communities when we return these folks.

BRANCACCIO: And there are Americans who care about that who also care about Guantanamo. I mean, Illinois Senator Richard Durbin this week offered a pretty intense apology on the Senate floor for equating the interrogators at Guantanamo with the Nazis.

Now I've seen the remains of the Nazi concentration camps at Dachau. I've actually been into the interrogation room in Guantanamo. And I wouldn't have made that comparison. That said, there are still crucial public policy issues at stake here.

CONSTANCE RICE: Absolutely. And that's why I wish he had not apologized. It-- you do not draw a parallel to Nazi Germany. That, you just don't. And that was over-the-top. But he should not have apologized for the core of his message, which was we have rights and due process values. We have conventions against torture.

You cannot be doing the things to prisoners that are being done in Gitmo and Abu Ghraib and simply say, "We're scared. We have to do what the people we're after do." Why is it that in order to get information you have to actually chain people to cold concrete floors, burn them with cigarettes, threaten to kill their children? These are things that the FBI has documented they witnessed. Sexually humiliate folks. And for what?

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, the military argues that they have gotten some good information through these interrogations.

CONSTANCE RICE: But, what they don't tell you is that the interrogators who know the art of interrogation and do not use abuse, do not use intimidation, do not use brutality and deprivation that borders on torture, they got information, too.

This is not a debate between civil libertarians and people who actually care about whether we throw away rights it took 1,000 years to get. You know, these are rights and as an African-American woman, you know-- it took us how long to get out of slavery? And African-Americans have enjoyed these rights for about 150 years. We're not ready to give them up right now.

It's a little too soon for us. Maybe everybody else wants to throw them out the window. But we're not ready. What we're doing is not defensible. What we're doing is sacrificing things-- principles and values and the things that our troops are dying for we're actually throwing out the window.

Look, our systems are worth keeping. People have died for these rights. We can't simply give them up because we're being attacked by an unconventional enemy. That isn't going to make us safer.

BRANCACCIO: So Connie, tell me you'll come back here soon?

CONSTANCE RICE: Any time, David. Good to be with you.

BRANCACCIO: Connie Rice, the Advancement Project, thank you very much.

CONSTANCE RICE: Thank you.

BRANCACCIO: For more information on just that topic, go to some of the links we've put up on our Web site at pbs.org

Now here's a look at what we're working on for next week.

This is where the suburbs end and the farms begin. Thinking of leaving the city for some fresh air? Well, think again.

LYNDA UVARI: Someone referred to it as living in a toxic soup, and that we're constantly barraged with some kind of chemical, and that's true.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW from Norwood, Ohio. I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

Connect to NOW, online at pbs.org

Join the debate over eminent domain

Explore the issues in the Supreme Court ruling

Hear more from Connie Rice

Connect to NOW at pbs.org


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