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As Kelo Turns 10, Meet the New Victims of Eminent Domain

06/23/2015 10:17 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

Ten years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city of New London, Connecticut, could bulldoze residential property so a private business group could build an office park.

Today, a Chicago university is trying to bulldoze six properties so a private developer can build and operate dorms and retail stores.

The corrupting power of eminent domain, brought to national attention in Kelo v. City of New London, still rears its head today.

The Fifth Amendment allows the government to seize private property for "public use." Typically, the idea of public use refers to roads or government buildings. However, the Supreme Court's ruling in the Kelo case set a dangerous new precedent, as justices approved the use of eminent domain as a means of "economic development."

In 1997, the city's economic-development arm, the New London Development Corporation, or NDLC, launched a plan that called for the purchase of a nine-acre neighborhood to replace it with an "urban village." The linchpin of the proposal was a new, $300 million research facility for Pfizer, which promised the city mounds of new jobs in exchange for an 80 percent cut to its property-tax bill.

The city approved the plan in 2000, putting the weight of eminent domain behind the NDLC so it could seize the properties and raze homes.

Seven of those property owners, including Susette Kelo, took the case to the Supreme Court and lost.

Today, the land sits empty and unused - Pfizer left in 2009, taking 1,400 jobs with it. New London has spent $80 million in tax dollars on the undeveloped land, according to the Institute for Justice.

More than 40 states passed either constitutional amendments or statutes that have reformed eminent-domain law to better protect property rights in the wake of the Kelo decision, according to the Institute for Justice - but the practice has not completely died out. In the northwest corner of Chicago, a state university president has moved to seize and bulldoze six small, family-owned businesses. In their place, Northeastern Illinois University President Sharon Hahs plans to hand over the land to a private real-estate developer to build and operate student housing that will also include private, retail shops on the ground floor.

Hahs said this project is necessary because NEIU is the only state college without student housing. She claims the neighborhood is economically depressed, and this project would spur growth and revitalization. But the 3400 block of West Bryn Mawr Avenue is home to many small businesses, such as Caren Real Estate, Hunan Wok and the new Bryn Mawr Breakfast Club.

The owners of these businesses have invested in the neighborhood for years.

Bill Tong grew up in the property that now houses Hunan Wok restaurant. His grandfather, who immigrated to the U.S. from China, built the property in 1954. It became the Tong family's home as well as its place of business, Tong's Tea Garden. Bill and his sisters, Dolly and Betty, inherited the property from their late father in 2010. Their elderly mother, who still lives in the top-floor apartment, may be forced to leave the building they've called home for nearly six decades if NEIU gets its way.

"Being a Chinese-American, I knew that the ideal is for a son to preserve the accomplishments of his father and hopefully improve on them. I don't stand a chance of that if the property is destroyed," Tong said.

He isn't alone.

Garrick Beil also grew up in the North Park neighborhood. His parents, Rosemary and Carl, were the children of German immigrants who came to Chicago from Germany in the 1920s. Rosemary worked as a school teacher and Carl was an architect and contractor, and to bolster their modest incomes they used their entire savings, plus loans from the bank and family members, to buy a dilapidated gas station at the corner of North Kimball Avenue and West Bryn Mawr Avenue. The Beils tore down that gas station and turned the property into two commercial spaces, both of which have been continuously occupied for nearly 40 years. Rosemary and her husband planned to rely on the income from these properties in their retirement. Instead, they are faced with a costly legal battle and an uncertain future.

As the story unfolding in Chicago's North Park neighborhood shows, eminent domain often plays out as a modern David v. Goliath tale.

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor prophesized as much in the Kelo decision:

"[T]he specter of condemnation hangs over all property," her warning continued, "Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory."

"... the beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process."

Small-business owners like Bill Tong and Garrick Beil can't match the deep pockets of the state. Their only hope is that NEIU leaders have a change of heart, drop the eminent-domain lawsuit and build on their own undeveloped land - approximately half of the college's 67-acre campus is green space.

Tong and Beil's story is a stark reminder that the threat of eminent domain remains just as real today for many as it did 10 years ago when the Supreme Court issued its Kelo decision.

NEIU's President Hahs and other proponents of the government's "right" to seize private property say they are well within their legal ability to pursue eminent domain -- under the law, they're correct. But legality doesn't confer morality.

If the government can take land from Bill Tong, Garrick Beil and the homeowners in New London, Connecticut, the same thing can and will continue to happen to other property owners across the county.