Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Why is the city of Montgomery condemning the property of African-Americans along a civil rights trail?

Over the last decade or so, dozens—perhaps hundreds—of homes in Montgomery have been declared blighted and razed in a similar manner. The owners tend to be disproportionately poor and black, and with little means to fight back. And here's the kicker: Many of the homes fall along a federally funded civil rights trail in the neighborhood where Rosa Parks lived. Activists say the weird pattern may not be coincidence. (...)

Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange didn't respond to my request for an interview, but he has insisted in other outlets that the reaction from Jones, Beito, and other critics is overblown. "I want property owners to act responsibly," Strange told an Atlanta Fox News affiliate last month. "If they don't care about their property then I want them to sell it to somebody that does care."

And yet one city resident, Jimmy McCall, was in the process of building a home when the city declared his property a public nuisance in 2008. When the city said the construction wasn't moving fast enough, McCall got restraining orders from both state and federal courts to prevent the city from destroying the building. The city tore it down anyway, then sent McCall a bill for the destruction. McCall won a court judgment for damages. The city is appealing.

Jim Peera, an Atlanta real estate developer, fought the city for six years over eight acres of low-income housing he owned that the city declared a public nuisance. After he won two court victories, two of his buildings mysteriously caught fire. He says the fire department never investigated, though a city official publicly suggested Peera set the fires himself to collect insurance. Peera eventually broke down and sold his land rather than fight the city's appeals. The property now belongs to Summit Housing Group, one of the country's largest developers of subsidized housing. Mayor Strange told ABC News last month that the city of Montgomery's involvement with these properties ends once the rubble is cleared—that the city isn't taking land from residents and selling it to developers. But in Peera's case, the city of Montgomery, not Summit, wrote the check for his land. (...)

Jim Peera filed an open records request for all of Montgomery's demolitions in 2008, then plotted them on a map, which he presented at a rally earlier this month sponsored by the libertarian public interest firm the Institute for Justice. The first thing you notice about Peera's map is that the vast majority of 2008 demolitions were west of Court Street, a part of the city that's mostly black. Within this area, the demolitions seem to fall rather consistently along the Selma to Montgomery Trail route. Hurst speculates that the city is trying to condemn and seize properties along the trail instead of buying them at fair market value—as eminent domain would require. I wasn't able to substantiate that claim (and short of a smoking gun document, I'm not sure how I could). But even if the demolitions are more generally about keeping eyesores out of a tourist area, it's hard to ignore the context: The city of Montgomery is destroying the homes of low-income, African-American residents along a trail commissioned to celebrate the civil rights movement.

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