In Mount Holly, New Jersey, a federal appeals court has sided with homeowners in their suit to block their displacement from an affordable 1950s housing project to make way for new development. The decision is unusual but timely: unusual in that courts have recently favored the use of eminent domain when planners make the case that the land can be put to a higher use, a position that was affirmed most dramatically in the Supreme Court in 2004 in Kelo v. the Town of New London. It is timely because New Jersey currently lacks a viable affordable housing law, and the court sympathized with arguments that plans to tear down the remaining buildings would both be discriminatory against the mostly minority tenants and an undue hardship when affordable housing units are in very short supply.
In Washington on Sunday, September 19th, I will be commenting on the film “Southwest Remembered,” a critical evaluation of the effects of the court case that cleared the use of eminent domain to redevelop whole sections of cities, in this case Washington’s Southwest sector. In Berman v. Parker the court ruled unanimously in 1954 that “It is within the power of the legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well ashealthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled.” All sorts of mischief followed, most notably the displacement largely of African-American and other recent migrants from older sections of major cities. It wasn’t until citizen organizations fought back that the use of eminent domain was used more sensitively. The Supreme Court has been moving away from favoring civil rights cases based on the disparate impact of undesirable actions. In Mount Holly, the district court has taken another view, making this a situation worth watching in the months and years ahead. The screening will take place at 2 pm. in the Abramson Family Recital Hall, American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center.