Montgomery’s New Civil Rights Struggle - Eminent domain used to remove 'blighted' homes



August 3, 2010

by: David Lewkowict |

Montgomery, Alabama - In 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus and forever changed the course of history. Her very public struggle for equality began at a bus stop outside Columbia Court apartments in Montgomery, Alabama.

"It is a very sad situation, it is quite ironic, that this is the place, this is the city where the civil rights movement began in 1955, a very assertive civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King. Yet you have the civil rights of minorities being violated here in a new kind of way, on, I think, a massive scale," said David Beito, chair of the Alabama advisory board to the US Commission on Civil Rights.

Residents -- mostly African-American -- accuse the city of Montgomery of taking their property without just compensation. Using the city's blight ordinance, Montgomery is condemning properties, demolishing them, and even billing the property owners for the demolition costs.

“We have good evidence that these homes are not in fact blighted, that is the pretext that they are blighted and that is why they are being demolished,” Beito said. ”Property owners are losing their land and I think that there is good reason to believe it often ends up in the hands of wealthy developers. It's eminent domain on steroids."

Karen Jones testified before a hearing held by Beito's advisory panel, charging that the city demolished her grandparents’ property without proper notice.

“When we got here, like I said, half the house -- the back half of the house was demolished,” Jones said. “I said let me see your paperwork, I need to know what are you doing here, because the taxes are paid on this land, you’re trespassing. And they told me that I couldn't be on the land while they are demolishing the house.”

Jimmy McCall and his attorney Norman Hurst were among more than 100 witnesses and property owners who testified before the same hearing. McCall says he was building a 5000 sq. ft. home out of salvaged and recycled wood. His property sits along a busy thoroughfare. McCall says many have asked him to sell his land but he is always refused.

“It was my dream house and the day they tore it down my wife cried and my little girl cried.” McCall explained.

McCall says he took the city to court to prevent demolition and won in both state and federal courts. McCall also got an injunction forcing the city off his property. Using the blight ordinance, McCall's property was eventually demolished and he was sent the bill.

“I never thought a municipality or any other government agents would go against a court order,” McCall said. ”I never thought they were that bold and arrogant and that they, you know, could just say away with you -- we're gonna do what we want to do and they did it. You know they actually came out and did it.”

Mayor Todd Strange says he took office after McCall's home was condemned and demolished. Without commenting on this specific case, Strange argues that the city is aggressively targeting properties that have been neglected.

“I want property owners to act responsibly. If they don’t care about their property then I want them to sell it to somebody that does care. If they do not care and continue to violate the ordinances of the city of Montgomery then we are going to take all appropriate and necessary action to clean our city and to keep our city safe and attractive and growing.”

Jones and McCall say they have the same interest in improving Montgomery and that the properties we're not neglected.

The Alabama Advisory Board found in favor of the property owners, recommending that the full U.S. Civil Rights Commission investigate any violations by the city. No one from the city appeared before the board.

Beito says there is evidence the city of Montgomery is targeting black homeowners for the benefit of private developers.

Mayor Strange disputes this claim.

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