March 20, 2007

What Would California Proposed Initiative 07-006 Do? (Part 1 of 3)

By What Would California Proposed Initiative 07-006 Do? (Part 1 of 3)

The California League of Cities—the opposite of a property rights group—has put forward a ballot initiative which you can read now on the Attorney General's website.  I've been asked to explain what this initiative would do.

First, the initiative is limited solely to "owner-occupied residences," and prohibits them from being transferred to "a private person." It does not protect small businesses, residents of apartments, churches, farms, or any other property.  (Also, it applies to residences only if the residents have lived there for at least a year before the condemnation.) 

Of course, it's small businesses that are the most common target of eminent domain abuse. Redevelopment occurs in business districts, not in residential areas, so it is rare to see homes taken for redevelopment. But why should a small business—like Ahmad Mesdaq's cigar store, or John Revelli's tire shop—receive no protection? People invest time, energy, and feeling into their businesses just as they do in their homes. A person's self-owned business is virtually the definition of The American Dream.

As James Chen so movingly writes, the reward of owning a small business "comes in personal satisfaction, in autonomy, in deliverance from office politics, in the freedom to make [one's] own mistakes instead of being forced to execute the misjudgments of others. Living by your wits can be risky, but it also makes you feel more alive." Yet although the overwhelming majority of the 223 incidents of eminent domain abuse between 1998 and 2003 involved small businesses, this proposed initiative would do nothing to protect them.

If the reason for this is that homes have greater sentimental attachment than do businesses—a highly questionable prejudice—then why are not the residents of apartment buildings protected? Or people who have lived in their homes for less than a year?

Last year, a representative from the California Redevelopment Association testified to the state legislature that they don't condemn homes. Thus this provision would seem quite clearly to be a meaningless sacrifice intended to avert strong property rights protection.

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