Wall Street Journal Article on "Blight" Condemnations:

Today's Wall Street Journal has an article on the debate over "blight" condemnations:

U.S. Supreme Court rulings on property law don't often serve as clarion calls to wide swaths of the population. But most rulings aren't Kelo v. City of New London.

States long have had the power to condemn private property for such purposes as building highways or bridges. But in the 2005 Kelo ruling, the court held that governments also can take property for the purpose of promoting "economic development," a broader justification than the court had previously allowed.

The ruling led to a widespread backlash, with more than 40 states passing laws in recent years aimed at limiting the power of so-called "eminent domain," including measures to remove "economic development" as a justification for seizing property.

But in many states the effort to blunt the impact of the Kelo ruling has proven elusive, say some property-rights advocates and academics. The problem, they say, is that many states still authorize the seizure of property that is deemed "blighted," a term often defined so broadly that it enables "virtually any property to be condemned," says Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University School of Law.

As a result, property-rights advocates say, states should adopt legislation that redefines blight . . .

The article does a good job of discussing how extremely broad definitions of blight can lead to the condemnation of property that isn't dilapidated in any real sense and poses no danger to the public. I discussed this issue in more detail in this 2006 Legal Times op ed. I am also glad that the author draws attention to the fact that such broad definitions persist in many states that have enacted post-Kelo reforms that supposedly ban "economic development" takings, a phenomenon I documented in Part II of this forthcoming article.

I wish, however, that the WSJ had also noted some of the ways in which takings in genuinely blighted areas can also be problematic. As I noted in the Legal Times article linked above, since World War II hundreds of thousands of people - mostly poor minorities - have been forcibly displaced by "blight" and "urban development" takings. In most cases, these people were left even worse off after the condemnations than before, and often the economic harm caused by the takings outweighed any gains.

The fact that an area is blighted may justify some form of government intervention to alleviate the problem. But that doesn't mean that the right solution is to condemn the property and forcibly displace those who live and work there. This omission in the WSJ article is partly my fault. I should have done more to focus the reporter's attention on this aspect of the issue when he interviewed me.