The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently decided Goldstein v. Pataki, a case challenging the condemnation of homes and other property in Brooklyn for the purpose of transferring them to developer Bruce Ratner, owner of the New Jersey Nets. Ratner plans to use the land to build a new stadium for the Nets, as well as other facilities, including some 2250 new housing units.
Not surprisingly, the Second Circuit upheld the condemnations. Under Kelo v. City of New London, they had very little choice. As I discuss in great detail in this article, Kelo mandates very broad judicial deference to the government in determining whether a condemnation is a genuine “public use” under the Fifth Amendment. Any potential benefit to the general public is sufficient, even if it is greatly outweighed by the project’s cost.
The case nonetheless reveals some of the serious shortcomings of Kelo and related precedents. Goldstein v. Pataki is a correct application of Kelo; it is also an example of the sort of abuse that more robust judicial protection of property rights could prevent.
First, the fact that much of the condemned land is to be used to build a sports stadium raises serious red flags about the true likelihood that the general public will benefit from the condemnation. Numerous studies by economists show that public subsidies for stadium construction create no economic benefits for the general public (see, e.g, this book published by the liberal Brookings Institution).
Second, the court claims that the creation of “affordable housing” for the poor is one of the public benefits to be expected from the project. The project will indeed create some new housing units (in addition to the stadium). However, as the Second Circuit opinion concedes (pg. 15), almost 70% of the new housing units will be “luxury” units for the wealthy, and the remainder is mostly not guaranteed to be ever built and is still intended for the “middle class” rather than the poor. Like the stadium, the housing portion of the project seems likely to be a straight redistribution of wealth from the current residents of the area to the very wealthy Mr. Ratner and the types of wealthy people who will be able to afford to buy the luxury housing he intends to build. To say the least, it is hard to discern any genuine public benefit here.
The Second Circuit also justifies the takings on the basis that they will serve to alleviate “blight.” New York City has indeed designated much of the area condemned area as blighted. However, the validity of this designation is debatable at best (the plaintiffs pointed out that much of the land in the area is among the most valuable in Brooklyn). As I discuss in this article, New York is one of many states with a definition of “blight” so broad that it can encompass virtually any property. Even if the area really is “blighted,” it doesn’t necessarily follow that the current owners and residents should be expelled and their land transferred to a politically powerful developer. Cities have many other options for alleviating genuine blight that do not infringe so greatly on property rights. At the very least, there is no good reason to condemn the 50% of the project area that even the city acknowledges to be free of blight (see pg. 14).
In this case, as in Kelo itself, the court took account of the claimed benefits to the general public, but explicitly refused to consider the massive costs (pp. 13-15). Ignoring cost is a requirement under Kelo. But it is not a good way of determining whether a planned condemnation is actually likely to serve a “public use” – even if “public use” is defined broadly to include indirect public “benefits.” Like those in Kelo, the Goldstein takings seem highly likely to create more costs than benefits for the general public. Ignoring costs is a blank check for local governments to undertake condemnations that benefit politically powerful interests while imposing the costs on taxpayers and the politically weak.
Finally, the Second Circuit notes that “Ratner was the impetus behind the [condemnation] Project, i.e., that he, not a state agency, first conceived of developing Atlantic Yards, that the Ratner Group proposed the geographic boundaries of the Project, and that it was his plan for the Project that the ESDC [government agency undertaking the condemnations] eventually adopted without significant modification.” The court is probably right to conclude that this is not enough to prove that the taking was a “pretextual” one under Kelo. At the very least, however, such a pattern of events should trigger heightened judicial scrutiny of the government’s true purposes in undertaking the condemnation. The fact that this kind of special interest-driven project receives only the most cursory possible judicial scrutiny is one of Kelo’s many shortcomings.