In the city of Philadelphia, a group of property owners are rightfully outraged by the local government’s attempts to forcibly confiscate their rightfully-owned land through the use of eminent domain laws. These property seizures are being conducted in order to build a proposed housing development project in the neighborhood of Philadelphia known as “Kensington,” an area which has become notorious for its poverty levels and high crime rates, despite the region’s burgeoning trend towards gradual gentrification. This slow-moving increase in community conditions and home values has apparently prompted the project’s proposal, which seeks to stifle the area’s upward socio-economic shift by ensuring that low-income housing remain locally available to those who are unable to afford the rising prices that coincide with community improvement.
The proposed project, called “Tajdeed” (which is Arabic for “renewal”), would have the capacity to support up to 45 low-income families, replacing the various properties that already exist in the Kensington region. The project is being funded through a private-public partnership between the city government, the Arab-American Community Development Corporation, and Conifer Realty LLC, a coalition of special interests that has been vehemently pushing for the completion of the housing project. Marwan Kreidie, executive director of the Arab-American Community Development Corporation, has expressed that he and his partners, “Look at this [housing project] as the last chance to maintain low and moderate income in this area.”
Apparently, Kreidie and his group feel as though total gentrification is a bad thing for an impoverished community because it increases property taxes, making it hard for poor families to afford to live there. In response, Kreidie has been pursuing what he proclaims to be a “public good:” he and his organization are seeking to combat the natural economic evolution of the city’s neighborhoods by using government force to seize privately-owned properties and replace them with low-income housing projects, the development of which is to be funded significantly in part by government grants.
Yes, that’s right: he wants to keep certain areas of the poor neighborhoods poor in order to ensure that those with a low income can still afford to live in slums within that particular region. What a hero.
Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez was another key contributor in pushing for the use of eminent domain to seize the properties in order to move forward with the Tajdeed project. She shares an opinion about the neighborhood’s recent economic growth that is similar to Kreidie’s, and also wishes to stifle Kensington’s progress of gentrification and ensure that the neighborhood maintains its present status of debilitating impoverishment. At a rally against the use of eminent domain in Kensington, she was quoted as saying that she, “doesn’t need consent,” to seize private property, and insisted that anything that is considered legal is therefore also moral. In an interview with writer Solomon Jones, Sanchez made the following remarks:
“There is nothing more important that government can do… than to assure affordability and accessibility in the entire city… You have to stop the gentrification by ensuring there’s affordability everywhere.”
That’s right, again. We have to stop gentrification so that the poverty can stay within the community, rather than allow natural economic conditions to guide individuals of various financial statuses to the areas with costs of living more suitable for their levels of income. Won’t that be great for the city and its local economy?
But wait: how will this marvelous feat of economic stabilization be conducted? By use of government force, naturally, in the form of eminent domain laws (a fancy term for property theft used by the government to soften the blow of the crimes it commits)!
The use of eminent domain has absolutely exploded in popularity within the city of Philadelphia in just the last year alone. In 2012, the City of Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (the city government’s division of property thieves) seized approximately 1,200 private properties from their rightful owners–a dramatic increase from the mere 100 cases of eminent domain use in the previous year, a number which seems miniscule by comparison. The reason for the sudden drastic increase in eminent domain cases is likely the result of the grandfathering in of local eminent domain laws, which allowed the city to postpone adopting the state of Pennsylvania’s recently-changed policies regarding the acceptable use of eminent domain following a 2005 Supreme Court ruling. This ruling, known as Kelo vs. City of New London, held that private redevelopment projects of “blighted” areas could be considered to fall within the realm of “public use” under the Fifth Amendment, and are therefore a legally-legitimate reason for the government to invoke eminent domain in order to allow for their construction. Since the newly-modified Pennsylvania state laws are much more restrictive of the use of eminent domain, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority appears to have been scrambling to cram as many possible uses of property seizure laws into a single year as it could possibly process before the new laws could go into effect on January 1st, 2013. And cram, they most certainly did, as is indicated by the dramatic difference in the number of annual eminent domain cases from each of the two years.
And now, in Kensington, that use of power to seize rightfully-owned property is being used against 19 property owners who are understandably angry about their local government’s tyrannical abuse of power. Among them is Meletius Athanasiadis, who has been offered a mere $149,000 from the city in exchange for seven of his properties, which include among them six parking garages and one residential home, the tenants of which are now being threatened with displacement. “Mel,” as he is called, along with the other victims of this tremendous violation of individual and property rights, was given little time to challenge the proceedings in court, and received notice of the impending property seizures just days before Christmas. In addition to having received such short notice of the city’s intent to steal their land from them, Pennsylvania state law allows a window of only 30 days to contest eminent domain attempts (a condition that most of the Kensington property owners were unaware of at the time). Since January 18th, their only option has been to negotiate with the government for financial compensation; they are no longer able to challenge the use of eminent domain against them and their properties.
Maria Quinones Sanchez admits that efforts to communicate with the victims of this injustice could have been much better, but remains indifferent about the matter and is continuing to push for the completion of the Tajdeed project:
“Our communication was not the best and that’s why we’ve hired a community outreach coordinator. We will do our best to be more deliberate moving forward.”
As for Marwan Kreidie, he expressed his stance on the matter in an interview for NBC10, Philadelphia:
“Look, the project is gonna happen. I think the important thing now is to make sure that everybody knows what rights they have, and they basically have to go and negotiate with the City. We want to make sure everyone is happy and gets a fair amount. We’re convinced this is gonna be a great project. It’s a community project and we’re all excited about it.”
Everyone, that is, except the victims of the state aggression he supports. For those being forced to give up to the city government what is rightfully theirs at the behest of the economically-illiterate political influences who are seeking to stifle their community’s development, excitement could not be further from their range of emotions. Some of Mel’s statements on the matter include:
“I can’t get justice done. I made a good investment, and the government can come and take it off of me to give it to a developer, why?”
“How can this happen in the United States out of all places? They [the government] acted like they’re gods.”
“They’re stealing. They’re taking my property, my tax dollars, and giving it to someone else…”
And Mel is correct in all cases. Eminent domain is property theft, pure and simple, and there is no excuse on earth that could ever justify its use for any reason. If a government can take someone’s property away based solely on whatever justifications it has made up for itself in an attempt to legitimize its crimes, then the question is raised about how much, if anything, anyone actually owns in this country.
Theft is theft, regardless of who commits it or whatever agency claims that there is a necessity for it, government being no exception. What’s happening in Philadelphia is outright thuggery, and should not be tolerated for even an instant.
If people calling themselves “the government” have the ability and power to steal from you everything that you’ve worked your whole life to achieve, what does that say about what the term “ownership” actually means within the context of today’s society, or about which group is working to serve whom? Do you think that a so-called “representative” or “public servant” ought to be able to steal your land and property from you for any justifiable reason, let alone for the outrageous excuse of needing to keep your community poor?
A society in which such actions transpire is as far-removed from the ideals of freedom as one can be, and has already made its descent into complete and utter tyranny. The only hope of putting a stop to these kinds of outrageous crimes is to resist allowing them to be committed at all costs, and to spread the word about such injustices to as many individuals as possible. Property rights are the most important element of a free society, and if the state manages to take away an individual’s right to his own private property, it has also taken with it his self-ownership altogether.
Eminent domain is theft, plain and simple, and it is wrong in every instance. No amount of grandstanding or usage of flowery legal terminology will ever change that reality–theft is theft, and ought never to be accepted by anyone, whether such an act has been committed by a common crook or by an elected official. The outcome remains the same, and until such conduct is rejected entirely by every single individual member of society, unfortunate stories such as this one are only likely to continue to be present in the everyday news stories of the future. Hopefully, people will begin to recognize eminent domain (and all other government initiatives) as the violent theft that it is, and begin to resist it sooner rather than later. Those people in Kensington sure did, and with any luck, more will be soon to follow. Perhaps the state will shoot itself in the foot by continuing to commit such abuses of its power, and bring about its own destruction when those who have been subjected to its oppression are no longer willing to tolerate it. Hopefully that day will come about sooner rather than later. Until it does, however, the only thing that I and the Kensington victims of eminent domain can do is spread the word about the importance of private property rights, and about the dangerous pitfalls of a society that fails to recognize them.