Property Rights Trampled in Norwood

Imagine for a moment that you are sitting in your home and suddenly, without warning, garbage men begin filing in and taking all of your belongings. Jewelry, furniture – everything. They leave nothing behind.

Believe it or not, when it comes to your private property, the government can essentially do just this. The courts have spoken; a judge in Hamilton County recently ruled that the city of Norwood can condemn homes simply by labeling a neighborhood as “deteriorating.”

Now the homes in question were hardly in poor condition. The homeowners hadn’t allowed them to “deteriorate.” Norwood claimed the homes were “blighted,” but the accusation was regarded as so comically inaccurate that the courts rejected the claim on its face.

However, in the end the result was the same. Five homeowners – with good homes – were compelled to forfeit their property based upon a vague and contorted legal definition. Essentially, they lost their homes on a technicality.

Sadly, this activity hasn’t been restricted to just Norwood. Elsewhere in Ohio, in the city of Lakewood, the law actually considers any home to be “blighted” that lacks an attached two-car garage.

A home could be a virtual mansion, with marble floors, high ceilings, and several bedrooms, and yet if it lacks that two-car garage, Lakewood reserves the right to use eminent domain to seize the property simply by labeling it as a blighted-out home. Needless to say, this can seem a bit absurd.

Yet from the government’s perspective, it is perfectly rational. They want to have the maximum latitude to seize property for redevelopment projects, and if that means indulging a farce, it’s a price they are more than willing to pay.

The problem, of course, is that eminent domain was never intended to be used this way. Eminent domain was originally intended as a means by which to take land for essential infrastructure when other means were lacking. It was meant for building freeways, hospitals, and schools.

Alas, eminent domain today has degenerated into a means for politically connected developers to steal peoples’ homes.

Not only is this corrupt, but it also conflicts starkly with the plain text of the US Constitution, which explicitly guarantees a right to property in both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The founding fathers themselves made their intentions very clear on this point. James Madison wrote in his essay Property that “government is instituted to protect property of every sort.” He added, “This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his.”

Clearly, the city of Norwood was not being impartial, nor was it respecting the first mandate of all just governments – to secure to every man what belongs to him. Instead, Norwood came to the belief that its goals for redevelopment actually superceded the rights of individual property owners.

Even worse, it decided to take land not for itself, but for private developers. That’s the equivalent of having a charity raid your pantry with the glib explanation that “other people need it more.” It may be true, but that’s no justification. If the needs of others always trumped our own, we would have no basis for individual rights whatsoever.

Perhaps Norwood can become a turning point, at least for Ohio. The fact that perfectly good homes were judged to be “blighted” by city officials is a frightening thought for any decent citizen. Perhaps empathy for what these people have endured will be enough to generate discussion on this issue.

Ultimately, nobody should have to lose their home on technicality, and the law should always protect the weak against the strong. Regrettably, it stopped doing that for homeowners a long time ago.

Owen Courrèges is a research fellow in urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation