Property Rights Foundation of America®

A History of Government Theft
Long before Kelo, bureaucrats were stealing Americans' private property

By Sarah Foster
April 2006

Reprinted from Whistleblower by permission of, publisher

Editor's Note: For many Americans the U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo ruling last June was a wake-up call. But what the city of New London, Conn., did to property owners is what local governments have been doing in cities and towns across the country for over half a century. As might be expected, it all began in Washington, D.C.


Social worker Mary Cavanagh wasn't one to pull punches, particularly when it came to urban renewal and its impact on her community.

"I have done social work in this country and in Europe, both in peace time and in war time and I have never seen such misery, injustice and hardship inflicted on a population by its own government," she exclaimed to a congressional committee. "I really believe that if General MacArthur's command had inflicted this much hardship on a conquered enemy in Japan, there would have been an immediate outcry from all over the civilized world."

It was 1960. Cavanagh lived and worked in Southwest Washington, D.C., a section of the nation's capital targeted by Congress in the mid-1940s to be a model for other cities to emulate in a nationwide slum-clearing effort.

Under the District of Columbia Redevelopment Act of 1945, areas of the city declared "dilapidated and blighted" were to be eliminated through "rehabilitation, clearance and redevelopment." The eviction of thousands of tenants and property owners from their homes and businesses was directed by Redevelopment Land Agency, an entity created by the statute, and tasked with assembling large land parcels, using eminent domain if necessary — which it did with a vengeance. The acquired properties could be sold or leased to private interests for commercial and other private uses.

The story of storeowner Sam Berman was fairly well-known by the public in 1960 because of the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous 1954 ruling. (See "A wreck of a plan" by Charlotte Allen on page 18.) But the sufferings of the 20,000 residents displaced from their homes and businesses had not received much attention either from the press or Congress, and Cavanagh and others hoped to set the record straight. For years she implored Congress to take a look at what was happening in its own bailiwick, and when finally invited to testify before the House Committee on the District of Columbia she put together a list of particularly horrific cases. Here are a several examples:

* Julie, an African-American woman, evicted from her small home sought shelter in a ruined building. The police removed her from her refuge, locking the door to prevent reentry. She was found dead in the weeds of the front yard the following day.

* Two sisters in their 60s owned and operated a rooming house near the railroad. On Jan. 30, 1958, appraisers from the RLA informed them they were taking the property and promptly evicted their tenants. Since no replacement housing was available the sisters were allowed to remain temporarily in their own home, but with their tenants gone they had no income. Incredibly, the RLA charged them rent. Soon after taking over the property the heating system failed and the water pipes froze, then thawed and flooded the premises, but the RLA refused to make repairs or do maintenance.

In late February, one of the sisters fell ill and died in her bed. It was bitter cold; the house so frigid the undertaker found ice on the sheets when he removed the body. The younger sister, physically disabled since the age of three, had no way to earn money except by taking in roomers. Now on the public dole, she was removed to a noisy, dilapidated wooden house overrun with rats and other vermin. She was still alive at the time Cavanagh drafted her report, but in declining health.

* The RLA spared no one, not even charities whose mission was to help the destitute. The Peter Claver House, which was open to all in need of help, no questions asked, was seized and closed, but without any substitute provision for the needy who suddenly found themselves without assistance. One man, who was dying of cancer, came for food, found no breadline, and lay down upon the pavement where he died.

Cavanagh was well-qualified to talk about these and other cases just as horrific. As director of a non-profit called Vincent House, she knew many of the victims in the area. Vincent House was, in her words, a "small, self-supporting but hopeful social service project, set up to gather and train a group of people to build their own homes in a cooperative community." The organization also owned a nearby house used as a shelter for a few evicted single people and others in need of housing who were not eligible for pubic assistance. Both buildings were taken by the RLA in 1958, two years before the hearing.

These case studies were just some of the tragedies she was prepared to share with the committee. Unfortunately, only a few of its members were interested, and her prepared statement was not included in the six-volume, 2,502-page, transcript of the hearings that was finally released in 1964. Nor was it included in the committee's House Report (No. 1947), "Investigation of Urban Renewal Development Programs in the District of Columbia," published in January 1965.

Both the Hearings and the Report are highly critical of urban renewal practices, but neither mentions in detail the sufferings of the people themselves.

Fortunately, Rep. Bruce Alger, R-Texas, placed Cavanagh's prepared remarks, along with statements by other critics, in the Congressional Record shortly following the hearings (Cong. Record, June 27, 1960). In 1965, historian Bryton Barron and his wife Ella Barron produced "The Inhumanity of Urban Renewal," a 100-page compilation that includes excerpts from the Hearings transcript and statements prepared by Cavanagh and others.

Had it not been for Alger and the Barrons, the tragic story of the people of Southwest Washington, D.C., would have been lost and forgotten.

Cavanagh worked with Mrs. A.C. Hagen, a former home economist, who owned one of the most beautiful homes in Southwest. They formed the Southwest Displaced Persons Grievance Committee, one of several citizen grassroots action groups created at the time to try.

"If you believe what you read in the papers, you undoubtedly think that Southwest was a rat-ridden, disease and crime-infested area, full of homes that were dilapidated, overcrowded, and lacking electricity, running water and indoor plumbing," Hagen told the D.C. Board of Commissioners at a public hearing. "It may come as a surprise to you … that most of the Southwest was a pretty good place to live, and that good, decent families who had lived there 20-50 years had no wish to live elsewhere. The area had many lovely old homes, many remodeled homes, some fine architectural gems, a quaint charm and atmosphere lent by artists, writers, Hall's Harrigan's the Wharves, and Mall cultural attractions."

She added that there were "scattered spots" of squalid conditions, but these were being upgraded when news of the impending urban renewal hit the neighborhood.

Hagen realized the Southwest was "a lost cause." Following a decade of planning, demolition had begun in May 1954, and by 1960 the bulldozers had pretty well finished their work. Still, she and Cavanagh hoped (futilely, as it turned out) they could convince the commissioners not to begin any new projects, just as they hoped Congress would put the brakes on Urban Renewal.

"For the people involved, urban renewal is no rosy dream. It is a hair-raising, long-drawn-out nightmare, disrupting home and community life. … We didn't think it could happen here, and we were unorganized to combat it," Hagen said.

Foul ball for property rights
At the time Cavanagh, Hagen and Berman were up fighting for their community, residents of Chavez Ravine, a continent away, were backed against the wall in a similar battle. And like their East Coast counterparts, they lost.

Located a few miles north of downtown Los Angeles, at the edge of a beautiful city park, the valley named Chavez Ravine had been home to generations of Mexican-Americans. It's been described as "a tight-knit, self-sufficient community, a rare example of small town life within a large urban metropolis," where residents grew their own food and ran their own schools and churches.

But in the eyes of city officials and planners the neighborhood with its simple single-family, wood-frame houses was an "eyesore" and a "shantytown," and they coveted the 170-plus acres as a prime spot for high-rise public housing that could be built under the new Housing Act of 1949 — landmark legislation that granted federal money to local governments to carry out certain congressionally set goals.

The Housing Act famously declared that every American deserves a "decent home and a suitable living environment," and this would be accomplished through a series of federal programs, including "elimination of substandard and other inadequate housing through the clearance of slums and blighted areas" by urban redevelopment (later called urban renewal) and public housing. Cities across the country grabbed at the chance to be paid with tax dollars for bulldozing and redesigning neighborhoods. Pittsburgh led the charge, followed by Philadelphia, New Orleans, Boston, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. By June 1964, there were about 1,550 projects in 750 cities.

Fifty years later a report by the Fannie Mae Foundation admitted the result was a "mixed legacy." While provisions for underwriting mortgages helped millions "realize the dream of homeownership", redevelopment within the cities had "simultaneously disrupted the lives of those displaced by the renewal projects it engendered."

Indeed it did. Just how much it "disrupted" lives, the people of Chavez Ravine learned first hand.

In July 1950, stunned residents received letters from the city telling them they'd have to sell their homes to make the land available for pubic housing. To soften the blow they were promised first choice of living quarters in the 13-story buildings and over 160 two-story "bunkers" planned for the site. The project would use $110 million in federal housing funds (about $1 billion in today's money).

Using its power of eminent domain the city began condemnation proceedings, paying property owners a fraction of what their land was actually worth. Some residents moved at the outset, figuring it was futile to resist. Those who stayed and fought, refusing to take the money and relocate, were labeled "squatters." By August 1952, much of the area had been acquired and demolition begun.

At this point the program began to fall apart. Angelinos were generally opposed to the idea of federal housing, and that November a new mayor, Norris Poulson, was elected, in part because he promised to end "un-American" spending programs. As it turned out, Poulson had no problem with the notion of invoking eminent domain to benefit wealthy magnates. The new mayor cut a deal with the federal Housing Authority. The city bought the land at a 75 percent discount over what the feds had paid for it, with a stipulation that the land would be used for a public purpose. Condemnations continued, only now these were not for government housing, but to benefit a wealthy sports magnate.

The 1949 Housing Act — like the District of Columbia Redevelopment Act of 1945 — contained a provision allowing land taken by eminent domain to be transferred to private developers for a "public purpose." Rather than return the land to the former owners, Poulson with other members of the L.A. oligarchy, invited Walter O'Malley, president and chief-stockholder of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to relocate his franchise to Los Angeles. After a courtship of several years — which involved considerable behind-the-scenes maneuvering — O'Malley formally accepted the offer.

The baseball magnate thus earned the dubious distinction of being among the first in a long line of takers Steven Greenhut calls "corporate welfare queens."

The trend in eminent domain cases today, Greenhut writes in Abuse of Power, is clear: "Government officials use their power to benefit the nation's richest and most influential people at the expense of average folks. … But nothing epitomizes this 'rob from the poor give to the rich' strategy more than various cities' zeal to use eminent domain and public subsidies to enrich the elite club of owners of professional sports teams."

The public was outraged at the notion of handing land acquired for public housing to O'Malley at a fire sale price, and there were allegations that Poulson had betrayed the public trust. But the proposal to take over Chavez Ravine survived several legal challenges, and in 1958 O'Malley supporters won a public referendum by a shaky 3 percent that gave him the green light to build the stadium.

By 1959, only a few property owners were left who steadfastly refused to leave, but in the end they were no match for armed sheriff deputies that kicked in their doors and dragged them by brute force from their homes. With the last "squatters" removed, construction was begun, and the 50,000-seat stadium opened in 1962.

"Chavez Ravine was victimized by both forms of redevelopment," writes Greenhut. "There was the old federally funded urban-renewal side of the equation, in which officials cleared away old neighborhoods to put up ghastly high-rise projects. And then there is the new form of redevelopment in which neighborhoods are cleared away in the name of tax generation, economic development and more innovative uses of the term 'public use.'"

"Uppity in Central Park"
Most critics of eminent domain concede there may be instances where it might be justified, such as for roads, schools and parks, since these will be used by the public. However, some of the most egregious cases of abuse of the "takings" clause of the Constitution have been for the creation of parks — local, state and federal — starting with the destruction of Seneca Village to create Central Park in New York City.

Seneca Village was a small community on the island of Manhattan founded by freed blacks. The state of New York passed antislavery legislation in 1827, at which time a number of former slaves seized the opportunity to move uptown out of the squalid conditions of lower Manhattan. The area chosen was between what is now 82nd and 89th Streets and 7th and 8th Avenues. Since land prices were low compared to those downtown, black men could afford to buy property, which enabled them to participate in civic politics.

Irish and German immigrants arrived in the 1840s, but it remained a largely black community, one characterized by racial harmony. Three churches and a school were established and the Village did very well — perhaps too well. As Manhattan grew, land became increasingly valuable, and in 1855 the city government cast covetous eyes at this small enclave of black property owners and invoked the powers of eminent domain to take their property as part of a planned "greensward" or open space. For two years, the Villagers refused to leave, resisting efforts of police who had been ordered to evict them.

"The policemen find it difficult to persuade them out of the idea which has possessed their simple minds, that the sole object of the authorities in making the Park is to procure their expulsion from the homes which they occupy," noted one newspaper, seemingly puzzled by the defiance of the embattled residents.

The property owners of Seneca Village were no more successful in fighting forced removal than were the folks in Southwest Washington or Chavez Ravine a century later. Following the government's destruction of Seneca Village, its residents did not reestablish their community elsewhere.

"Nor should this surprise us," writes professor Butler Shaffer, of Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles, commenting on the fate of Seneca Village in his article, "Uppity in Central Park." "The history of eminent domain — whether practiced under the banner of 'manifest destiny,' 'urban renewal,' 'land use planning,' 'urban redevelopment,' or efforts to 'revitalize' a city — is replete with examples of the unintended destruction of once vibrant and orderly neighborhoods, communities, and cultures. Those who doubt this are invited to compare the present condition of most American Indians with that of their ancestors; or to contemplate how the urban renewal destruction of traditional ethnic neighborhoods also destroyed the informal systems of order that prevailed therein, leaving in their wake the brutality of street-corner gangs and drug-wars."

Urban renewal for the countryside
Moving from the urban to rural landscape: "Farmers and others who own range, timber, or other lands that can be described as open space have every reason to fear the numerous methods afoot to deprive them of their land," warned journalist Jo Hindman, in her 1967 book Blame Metro: When Urban Renewal Strikes. (Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho).

As an example, Hindman cited farms "engulfed" by the 1940 expansion of Olympic National Park in Washington State, by a presidential executive order that "swept the Lake Quinault farmers within the park boundaries."

"Although their grandparents had owned the land by virtue of patents granted by the United States, today under Federal Park Service regulations, the farmers are powerless to administer their farms," Hindman wrote. "Wild animals prey upon their chickens, bears destroy orchards and kill sheep, deer invade and destroy gardens in a single night; whereas under state laws, regulated hunting would keep the predators from destroying farm produce."

She also described the then-raging battle between residents and feds over the proposal by the National Park Service to create a 32,000-acre Oregon Dunes National Seashore. The government was able to persuade the locals to accept the plan by promising the dunes would be accessible for recreation, and the 40 miles of coastline became the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area in 1972.

But Hindman was particularly struck by a new Open Space Land Program created by the Housing Act of 1961 and administered by the Housing and Home Finance Administrator. Through the Act federal grants were made to public regional or local agencies to buy up open land, and cities could reach out and take adjacent farmland for urban park systems, recreation, and scenic purposes. A stipulation required that lands acquired through the program had to be part of a comprehensive, open space plan.

"Open Space is urban renewal's program for the farmers," Hindman declared (the emphasis is hers), "and as such completes a device for a full-scale land reform revolution in the United States. As Urban Renewal has seized land control in cities for the past 16 years, so in the countryside urban renewal now seizes land on the nonsense that [bureaucrats], not owners, should determine the best use for the land."

Federal urban renewal was ended in 1974, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. But Washington's involvement in city planning has continued (though to a lesser degree) through the distribution of block grants for revitalization and housing. Scarcely missing a beat, the cities and counties continued many of the old policies.

And for the countryside, Congress in 1964 passed the sweeping Wilderness Act that called for huge swaths of land to be kept in a virgin state — no mining, no timber-cutting, no cattle grazing, no residences. One of the chief proponents of the Wilderness Act was Supreme Court Justice William O'Douglas, author of the 1954 Berman v Parker decision, in which the high court first stretched the constitutional principle of "public use" to include "public purpose."

The Nixon administration saw passage of statutes that clamped amazing regulations upon land use in the rural areas: the clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and most astonishing of all — the Endangered Species Act of 1973. All of these deprive land owners of their property, and the term "regulatory taking" has come into use, to distinguish between these and a taking through eminent domain.

In hindsight, Hindman's prediction that "open space" was urban renewal's program for farmers and other land uses proved to be chillingly accurate.

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