When the city of Montgomery, Ala., razed the home of Karen Jones' family last April, there were still photos and family furniture inside. The city says it gave Jones notice the bulldozers were coming, but she says the notices were sent to her deceased grandmother (the home's former owner) and a deceased uncle. The reason given for the demolition was that the front porch wasn't up to code. The city declared her property "blighted," and destroyed the building, rather than helping Jones and her family fix the porch, or fixing it and sending her a bill. And then Montgomery sent Jones a bill of $1,225, the cost of the demolition. If she doesn't pay, the city will put a lien on the property. If she still doesn't pay, the city can seize the land or sell it at auction.
What happened to Jones isn't unusual. Over the last decade or so, dozens—perhaps hundreds—of homes in Montgomery have been declared blighted and razed in a similar manner. The owners tend to be disproportionately poor and black, and with little means to fight back. And here's the kicker: Many of the homes fall along a federally funded civil rights trail in the neighborhood where Rosa Parks lived. Activists say the weird pattern may not be coincidence. "What's happening in Montgomery is a civil rights crisis," says David Beito, a history professor at the University of Alabama who, as chair of the Alabama State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, held hearings on the demolitions in April of last year.
Just how many homes have been targeted over the years isn't clear, in part because most of the people targeted haven't the means or the will to fight the condemnations. But some residents believe the number is in the hundreds. It's certain that there were more than 60 demolitions in 2008. And ABC News reported last month that 29 buildings were approved for demolition in 2009, and 49 have been approved so far this year. To be fair, Montgomery has its share of eyesores, and some of the demolitions may well be intended to get rid of abandoned or neglected houses and protect public safety. But many aren't: Beito says more than 30 people testified at his hearings last year that their homes had been wrongly targeted.
Beito calls these actions "eminent domain through the back door." And they're actually more sinister than the take-from-the-poor, give-to-the-rich eminent domain schemes you may have heard of, like the infamous Kelo v . New London Supreme Court case, or the more recent Atlantic Yards project in New York City. Alabama state law actually forbids the use of eminent domain for private development. Instead, Montgomery deems property blighted based on a section of state law that gives code inspectors wide leeway. The owner must then correct the problem to the satisfaction of the inspectors, or the city will do what it threatened to do to Jones: Raze the property, bill the owner for the demolition, and then sell the property off to developers if the owner doesn't pay. If you can't afford repairs, you may well lose your home.
This is much worse than eminent domain, which requires the government to pay owners fair market value.
Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange didn't respond to my request for an interview, but he has insisted in other outlets that the reaction from Jones, Beito, and other critics is overblown. "I want property owners to act responsibly," Strange told an Atlanta Fox News affiliate last month. "If they don't care about their property then I want them to sell it to somebody that does care."
And yet one city resident, Jimmy McCall, was in the process of building a home when the city declared his property a public nuisance in 2008. When the city said the construction wasn't moving fast enough, McCall got restraining orders from both state and federal courts to prevent the city from destroying the building. The city tore it down anyway, then sent McCall a bill for the destruction. McCall won a court judgment for damages. The city is appealing.
Jim Peera, an Atlanta real estate developer, fought the city for six years over eight acres of low-income housing he owned that the city declared a public nuisance. After he won two court victories, two of his buildings mysteriously caught fire. He says the fire department never investigated, though a city official publicly suggested Peera set the fires himself to collect insurance. Peera eventually broke down and sold his land rather than fight the city's appeals. The property now belongs to Summit Housing Group, one of the country's largest developers of subsidized housing. Mayor Strange told ABC News last month that the city of Montgomery's involvement with these properties ends once the rubble is cleared—that the city isn't taking land from residents and selling it to developers. But in Peera's case, the city of Montgomery, not Summit, wrote the check for his land.
Peera believes his fight with Mongtomery was about city officials making a deal for a tract of land with a developer. But he and other activists trace many of the other condemnations in Montgomery, perversely, to an effort to commemorate the civil rights movement. In 1996, Congress appropriated money for the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, a National Parks Service project to commemorate the 1965 civil rights marches between the two cities and preserve historic structures along the way. Montgomery attorney Norman Hurst—who has represented several property owners against the city, including McCall and Peera—thinks the trail's route matches the city's pattern of home demolition. "In some of these neighborhoods, they've condemned nice homes and passed right over houses that are falling down, or with trees laying across the roof," he says. "One thing you start to notice is that the condemned houses aren't usually the worst houses in the neighborhood, but they do tend to lie along or near the trail." Hurst says the current spate of demolitions goes back about 10 years, which would roughly coincide with the time the Selma to Montgomery Trail project got up and running.
Jim Peera filed an open records request for all of Montgomery's demolitions in 2008, then plotted them on a map, which he presented at a rally earlier this month sponsored by the libertarian public interest firm the Institute for Justice.The first thing you notice about Peera's map is that the vast majority of 2008 demolitions were west of Court Street, a part of the city that's mostly black. Within this area, the demolitions seem to fall rather consistently along the Selma to Montgomery Trail route. Hurst speculates that the city is trying to condemn and seize properties along the trail instead of buying them at fair market value—as eminent domain would require. I wasn't able to substantiate that claim (and short of a smoking gun document, I'm not sure how I could). But even if the demolitions are more generally about keeping eyesores out of a tourist area, it's hard to ignore the context: The city of Montgomery is destroying the homes of low-income, African-American residents along a trail commissioned to celebrate the civil rights movement.
After the hearing in April, Beito's committee asked the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to launch a full investigation into the Montgomery demolitions. A decision about that is probably several months away. Jones isn't waiting. She lost a bid Tuesday for the Montgomery City Council but has started an activist group devoted to helping homeowners whose properties have been condemned. At last month's rally, sponsored by the Institute for Justice, tradtionally right-leaning property rights activists mingled with civil rights leaders and a representative from the NAACP.
Karen Jones isn't Rosa Parks. But Montgomery's tone-deaf pattern of condemning black-owned properties along a commemorative trail that winds through Parks' own neighborhood does evoke the lesson of Parks' legacy: There's dignity in resisting injustice, even if you're likely to lose.