Column: Eminent domain won’t bring back Motown

Jeffrey Redfern

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is campaigning for re-election Tuesday with his signature slogan, “every neighborhood has a future.” But a prominent local law professor claims the future of many neighborhoods depends on the government seizing massive amounts of private property to fit a government-developed “master plan.”

Longtime Wayne State University law professor John Mogk argues “Duggan needs to move from fixing the short-term problems to laying a long-term foundation for the city” that depends on eminent domain. Mogk glowingly cites the city’s use of eminent domain in 1981 to destroy the Poletown neighborhood and turn it over to General Motors for a factory. General Motors announced it would cut nearly 1,300 jobs from the factory last December. Still, Mogk argues that Detroit’s future success lies in government agents taking their constituents’ private property and giving it to private developers.

Although it remains unclear how destroying more local neighborhoods will reverse decades of population decline, among other issues, Mogk’s eminent domain plotting has a bigger problem: the Michigan Constitution. In 2004, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that governments using eminent domain to give private property to private developers is a “radical departure from fundamental constitutional principles.” This means bulldozing the Poletown neighborhood for a General Motors factory was unconstitutional and Michigan homeowners would now be safe from such eminent domain for private gain.

Mogk, who was a member of the Detroit Board of Education and chaired the governor’s Council for Labor and Economic Growth, considers the Constitution protecting private property rights a disaster for Detroit. His solution is to repeal those rights, which is where the mayoral election comes in. Mogk’s plan is for Mayor Duggan to use his re-election political capital to promote a state constitutional amendment that would allow Detroit to use eminent domain for private development.

Contrary to Mogk’s thinking, such a move would be disastrous for hardworking taxpayers in Detroit and throughout the Wolverine State. If government officials can take private property from their constituents whenever they would rather something else be done with the property, then property rights effectively cease to exist. But the problem is as much practical as it is philosophical — eminent domain for private development doesn’t work, although it leaves many victims.

The General Motors factory built on the ruins of an immigrant neighborhood is shedding 1,300 jobs, while nearby plants are cutting thousands more. In New London, Connecticut, the private development that infamously destroyed the entire neighborhood around Susette Kelo’s little pink house never materialized. Years later, the land is a barren wasteland of feral cats, and the Pfizer research facility that inspired the failed development plan — which aimed to replace a working-class community with more upscale residents — has closed.

The Institute for Justice’s “Doomsday? No Way” report found no negative economic consequences from eminent domain reform, which was implemented in some form in 42 states after the Supreme Court narrowly ruled in favor or eminent domain for private gain in the widely reviled Kelo v. City of New London decision. Even states with the strongest reforms saw no ill economic effect compared to states that failed to enact reform.

Former Anaheim, California Mayor Curt Pringle, who also served as speaker of the California House of Representatives, further undermines Mogk’s argument. His report, “Development Without Eminent Domain,” highlighted the ways his city encouraged robust economic development without trampling on his constituents’ property rights. And in a majority-black city like Detroit, it’s also worth noting the extensive ways eminent domain has threatened African-American communities. The people of Detroit deserve better.

Jeffrey Redfern is an attorney with the Institute for Justice.