The Tragedy of Urban Renewal

Reason TV has a short but interesting video about the urban renewal era of the 1950s and 60s, when hundreds of thousands of people – mostly poor minorities – were forcibly displaced from their homes by eminent domain. As the video notes, often the land was transferred to politically connected developers and other influential interest groups.

I discuss this period in greater detail in my recent testimony on the civil rights implications of eminent domain abuse before the US Commission on Civil Rights. As I point out there, today’s abuses are not on as large a scale as those of fifty years ago. But it is still common for “blight” condemnations to be used against the minority poor and other politically weak groups in order to transfer their land to politically powerful groups. And nowhere more so than in New York City, the focus of the Reason video. The recent Columbia University and Atlantic Yards cases are particularly egregious examples, which I described in this article.

Urban renewal and blight takings are also a good example of how, contrary to stereotype, protecting property rights often benefits the poor more than the wealthy. Indeed, government is far more likely to threaten the rights of the former, because they usually have less political influence with which to protect themselves.

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