The new film, Little Pink House, packs a powerful message. It tells the story of Susette Kelo, the plaintiff in the infamous 2005 Supreme Court case Kelo v. New London. She sues her city government to prevent them from condemning the homes of her and her neighbors in a historic low-income neighborhood. There’s a scene in which Susette, sitting at the stand in their initial hearing, answers a question from her lawyer about what she would like to gain from their lawsuit:
“I just want to be left alone.”
That’s the primary sentiment one should feel when they are the victim of a wrongful eminent domain scheme. Eminent domain is the legal term for the authority of your local, state, and the federal government to condemn and purchase private property for its own use. It is most often exercised by cities and counties who can force property owners to sell, but on terms regulated by the Constitution. According to the Fifth Amendment, private property can only be taken “for public use” assuming the owner is offered “just compensation” for their land. Public uses such as highways, post offices, and schools are often the result of this power.
That phrase was the issue at the heart of the Kelo case. Instead of condemning the homeowners’ land for a traditional public use, New London intended to prime it for corporate redevelopment. They struck an agreement with the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to build a new research facility next to the to-be-razed neighborhood and use the surplus land for a gentrification complete with hotels and luxury apartments. In effect, the city was forcibly taking land from unprivileged residents and handing it over to a privileged corporation, and ignoring the public use requirement in the process. When it came to the Supreme Court, the justices prepared to answer the question of whether or not taking private property to give to a private developer violated the Fifth Amendment.
The Court decided wrong. The five majority justices ruled that private developments that will increase the tax revenue and economic prosperity of an area constitute a public use and opened a door allowing for the property rights of Americans to be abused. Influential corporations can use their clout to persuade public officials to grant them benefits at the expense and unwillingness of poorer citizens. Justice O’Connor agreed in her dissenting opinion, warning that “the fallout from this decision will not be random.” Instead, the “beneficiaries” will be those “with disproportionate influence and power in the political process” who can profit not from providing goods and services to customers, but by participating in constitutional theft.
Continual abuse reminds us the public use protection outlined in our Constitution has lost its weight. The city of New York used eminent domain on a Brooklyn neighborhood in 2010 to allow for the construction of the Barclays Center, a financial failure. According to CityLab writer Kriston Capps, local public-private partnerships are on the rise across the country to meet the economic development dreams of city planners. With them comes the need to seize private property. As long as eminent domain for private gain is eaten up by government officials and untouched by federal courts, the property rights of every American are at risk.
At the end of Little Pink House, Susette Kelo is defeated, her house is razed, and nothing is built on top of it. Yet the release of the movie shows how Kelo has had an impact on the issue. Some 44 states in the decision’s fallout have amended their laws to limit the ability of their local authorities to use eminent domain. The progress that has been made confirms the case has thrust property rights back into popular politics. If judges won’t restore the public use clause back to its original standing, it is our responsibility to fight wrongful eminent domain when it happens in our cities and continue to push for broader protections on the state level. We can tell local officials and influential corporations to leave American property owners alone – just like Susette Kelo and the residents of New London.