Susette Kelo was a nurse, and a recently divorced single mother. Susette had the good fortune to find herself a lovely house in New London Connecticut, a fixer-upper. Suzette purchased this old house in 1997, and went to work on making it her own, including painting it pink. Suzette’s house had a great view of Connecticut’s Thames river. Her neighbor just across that river was Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. Pfizer also experienced some good fortune around the same time, with the release of Viagra in 1998.
Susette planned to stay there, in that pink house, for the rest of her life. Pfizer also had long term plans for its home in New London. Pfizer’s plans did not include Susette Kelo but their plans did include her neighborhood.
The City of New London used the power of Eminent Domain to condemn Susette’s home and those of her surrounding neighbors. The city envisioned ‘jumpstarting’ the city’s dwindling economy with new condos and other projects that would complement the Pfizer facility, in the place of Susette’s neighborhood. Susette and her neighbors were not going to sit still and allow their property rights and their homes to be destroyed. They refused to surrender their properties to this process and litigated the matter all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2005, Susette and her neighbors lost in their last heroic effort to save their homes. The court ruled that the city acted within it’s rights in condemning and taking the property of Susette and her neighbors pursuant to Eminent Domain procedures, even if they were taking it for purposes of Pfizer and a private development project.
There was a tremendous backlash and shock that followed that case nationwide. After that decision in Kelo V. New London, many states took steps to limit the power of Eminent Domain in their states. California was one of those.
In 2011, Republican Chris Norby pushed through legislation which ended Redevelopment Agencies in California, agencies also known as “RDA’s.” These were the popular means by which many state and county governments were doing exactly what New London had done. An “RDA” would be established for the purpose of determining that a given area or neighborhood was “blighted”, then “condemn” it. Often, like in the New London case, the property would be sold to private developers. Governor Jerry Brown was also a vocal critic of this practice which was an obvious infringement upon the rights of property owners and as such, Gov. Brown supported Norby’s efforts by signing his bill into law.
Memories are short in Sacramento.
In the past two months, Governor Brown has again signed two bills Re-Establishing these practices of cities, counties and other municipalities, in taking property away from rightful owners. These new types of agencies might be called “Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Device” or EIFO, and “Community Revitalization Investment Authority”, or CRIA.
Since there are no truth in disclosure requirements for legislation, lobbyists and legislators have wide discretion to name new laws and newly invented government agencies stemming from these laws. If there were such truthful naming rules, these agencies would have to be called “Pigs with Lipstick” agencies. In spite of all the chest beating our governor does about how pro-civil liberties he is, he quietly signed these property taking measures into law within the past six weeks. It is still Eminent Domain. It is still a public agency taking private property and turning it over to a corporation or developer. These agencies and their efforts might not be called “RDA’s” any longer, but that is what they are.
Also voting in support of the creation of these CRIA’s, the agencies that will now be authorized to take private property away from small businesses and private homeowners, (surprisingly) new local conservative heroines, Ling Ling Chang and Young Kim. Sadly, their gerrymandered districts overlay what used to be the consistently conservative district of Norby. There was little fanfare or contention about their votes in favor of big government and big business. Fortunately, Orange County does have some conservatives in Sacramento who still think that government aid to corporations like Pfizer are a bad idea. A thanks for holding the line on this appropriately goes out to Matt Harper and Travis Allen who voted against authorizing new CRIA’s for the taking of private property.
Now that California has resuscitated the right of government to crush little pink houses on behalf of corporate giants like Pfizer, what ever became of Susette Kelo and her neighbors???
Ten years after the huge victory won by Pfizer and New London, the neighborhood still stands vacant. The houses were torn down and are long gone. Only empty fields remain and only feral cats have made new homes there. The litigation against Susette and her neighbors cost the city in excess of $80 million. Pfizer abandoned its plant in New London, along with 1500 jobs. At the end of the Supreme Court case, there was even MORE litigation when the city tried to sue Susette and her neighbors to recover rent for the years that the litigation had been ongoing.
The proponents of the new California laws and creation of these new agencies cite as the reason to support it as new “safeguards”. The only added safeguards are the number of conditions of “blight” that have to be found prior to a municipality making a determination to “condemn”. Other than this very minor change, the CRIA is nearly identical to the old RDA. Ultimately, these are still just mechanisms that the government can use, to take private property from small businesses and homeowners, and transfer it to large corporations and developers.
In their defense, even a tiny change is in fact a ‘difference’. Just like a pig, it is different with lipstick.