The blight of redevelopment

January 22, 2014 | By CHRISTINA MARTIN

Last week, PLF filed an amicus curiae letter in the California Supreme Court, asking it to grant the Community Youth Athletic Center’s (CYAC) petition for review of an abusive scheme to transfer its private property to a developer for its private business venture.  Shocking as it may seem, similar transfers happens across the country and were common in California until 2011, when the state legislature accidentally ended redevelopment agencies.  Redevelopment agencies are governmental entities that take land from the “little guy,” usually to give to large corporations for “redevelopment.”  Theoretically, nasty, unsafe buildings are supposed to be replaced with new shiny developments that create economic growth. But instead, these redevelopment agencies frequently devour perfectly safe and nice properties, on the promise that new ownership will mean more tax revenues.

CYAC is a nonprofit gym that helps at-risk kids stay out of trouble and out of gangs. Despite this youth charity’s admirable goals, a private developer set its sights on the land for luxury condominiums.  National City’s redevelopment agency agreed to use the power of eminent domain — which was intended to allow the government to condemn property to build roads, schools, and other public facilities — to force CYAC off its land. The city tried to strong-arm the youth charity, warning CYAC that it would face condemnation if it did not voluntarily sell.

California law requires land to be “blighted” before it can be taken for private use.  The government must prove this with substantial evidence of some kind of physical blight (like unsafe buildings) and some kind of economic blight (like high crime or excessive bars in the area). National City’s redevelopment agency waited until only a few days before the precondemnation hearing to release the report demonstrating this “evidence.”  This delay-tactic obviously made it difficult for the charity to prepare to rebut the government’s assertion, and — not surprisingly —  the report lacked data demonstrating blight.

At the conclusion of this fundamentally unfair process, National City declared CYAC’s property to be blighted.  CYAC challenged the designation on several grounds, among them that it violated CYAC’s right to due process of law.  The Due Process Clause guarantees that individuals will not be stripped of their property or liberty without first being given adequate notice and an opportunity to be heard. Unfortunately, the California Court of Appeal held that National City’s perfunctory blight designation had not violated CYAC’s due process rights. The appellate court reasoned that the charity’s property interest did not warrant the Constitution’s protection, because the City had not yet condemned the land.

But even without a condemnation, blight designations hurt property values, undermine business relationships, and limit a property owner’s options to use property.  Just having condemnation hanging over a property like the sword of Damocles will frustrate any plans that the owner has to improve the property, since she may not have the opportunity to enjoy the benefit of those improvements.  Moreover, landowners have a right to be safe from a wrongful blight determination and the threat of a wrongful condemnation. The California Supreme Court should grant this case to vindicate those property rights.