“Blight” Condemnations in Alabama

Historian David Beito, chair of the Alabama Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights, has an interesting post documenting the abuse of “blight” condemnations in Montgomery, Alabama:

“[E]minent domain through the back door” has become commonplace in Montgomery, the cradle of the modern civil rights movement. Under this system, Montgomery has demolished homes without the normal due process of conventional eminent domainand often gives little notice. The city alleges that these homes are “blighted” but, as the story on Jimmy McCall shows, at least some are in excellent repeir.

Typically, under eminent domain through the back door, the city of Montgomery bills the owner for the cost of demolition and he or she is left with an essentially worthless property. The victims are often low-income blacks, many of home live near or in Rosa Parks old neighborhood.

Beito and I described the broader implications of these kinds of takings in this 2008 op ed. Unfortunately, abusive blight takings are not confined to Alabama. They are a serious problem in many parts of the country. For example, New York’s highest court recently upheld two such condemnations in the Atlantic Yards and Columbia cases. Unlike many other states, Alabama has actually passed a fairly strong post-Kelo eminent domain reform law that defines blight relatively narrowly and forbids condemnations that transfer land to private owners for pure “economic development” purposes (see my analysis of that law and other states’ reforms this article). Unfortunately, sometimes the law on the books is one thing and enforcement is another.