Owning a home is the American dream. Another American dream is building a business of your own — using your talents and your grit to become you the master of your own destiny.
But our government is quietly exercising the power to take those dreams away from people. And most of us don’t even realize it’s happening all over the country.
Chicagoan Bill Tong understands this all too well. For more than 60 years, his family’s legacy resided in a two-story brick building on the far northwest side of Chicago where his grandparents, who immigrated from China in the 1920s, opened a Chinese restaurant called Tong’s Tea Garden with an apartment upstairs. That was where Bill grew up.
But that legacy has been taken from him because of a pernicious government policy that allows bureaucrats to seize private citizens’ property. Bill moved his elderly mother, Linda, out of that upstairs apartment, where she raised her family, in late 2016. She’d lived there for nearly 60 years. The Lin family, who took over the restaurant nearly two decades ago and renamed it Hunan Wok, was forced out at about the same time.
The tool that cost the Tong family their home is called eminent domain. When most people hear that term, they probably imagine the government seizing a cornfield to build a highway. But Northeastern Illinois University seized the Tong family property because officials wanted to hand over the area to a private developer to build new student housing. Now, the university has conceded that its plan to build more student housing is dead because of a lack of demand.
What NEIU did to the Tongs and a handful of other families in Chicago is legal thanks for a notorious Supreme Court case called Kelo v. City of New London. The Fifth Amendment allows the government to seize private property for “public use,” and 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.”
Today, eminent domain remains a real threat to individuals and families, as government officials can label seemingly any property or neighborhood “blighted” in order to leverage eminent domain as the means to achieve their preferred aesthetic or business activity.
“(Blighted) ends up being a synonym for ‘coveted,’” said Robert McNamara, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, the organization that litigated the Kelo case.
All over the country, politicians and bureaucrats eager to give the appearance of economic development and prosperity leverage this despotic power, often against individuals who lack the manpower and the deep pockets needed to fight back. This isn’t a new story — in fact, it’s been happening for years. In 1997, the city of New London, Conn., used eminent domain to bulldoze residential property so a private business group could build an office park. The linchpin of the city’s “economic development” plan 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. Seven of those property owners, including Susette Kelo, fought back, but ultimately 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.
Just 50 miles away from the Tongs in Chicago, the village of Fox River Grove is making its second attempt to use eminent domain to force out New China restaurant, which has served its community for 40 years. The village hopes to create a commercial or mixed-use space, but there is no developer for the project.
In 2017, New York City officials seized the property that housed Fancy Cleaners, a dry-cleaning business owned by Korean immigrants, to hand off to a wealthy developer. The family was forcibly evicted from their property after fighting the city for nearly 10 years.
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor hit the nail on the head when she wrote in the 2005 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.”
In these David versus Goliath showdowns, the little guy is getting absolutely trounced.
Eminent domain is not only about taking property: It is also about taking people’s dreams. Government should not be in that business.
—Hilary Gowins is vice president of communications for the Illinois Policy Institute.