Public Comment

New: Stop Eminent Domain Fishing Expedition in Berkeley

Councilmember Kriss Worthington
Tuesday March 15, 2016 - 02:23:00 PM

A proposal for a wide-ranging fishing expedition that threatens to use taxpayer money to search the City for property the City can take away from its owners by eminent domain will be item 22 on the Berkeley City Council agenda tonight. Here is a link to the proposal:

Threatening to use eminent domain at an unspecified number of locations is poor public policy and likely to counterproductively create consternation and fear. The City of Berkeley must recognize the threat that eminent domain poses to our low-income, our elderly, our minority residents and our many people of conscience of all races who care about fairness and justice. Given the controversial history of eminent domain displacing low income and minority residents around the country, any consideration of implementing eminent domain beyond an individual long-troubled property should be preceded by a policy limiting displacement. The seizure of private property has serious ramifications for impacted property owners, and for small businesses and for residential tenants, as we have seen from past catastrophes that eminent domain has caused. Given Berkeley’s own displacement of low income residents and the dramatic decline in the percentage of African American residents in Berkeley, it would be wise to develop strong assurances to limit negative impacts and displacement before voting on item 22 on the March 15 City Council agenda. 

Eminent domain has historically targeted racial and ethnic minorities. The amicus brief by the NAACP, AARP, Hispanic Alliance, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a response to Kelo v. New London, makes that outcome clear. These respected community organizations explain how “the burden of eminent domain has and will continue to fall disproportionately upon racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and the economically disadvantaged”. We must acknowledge this historical fact and seriously consider who our policies might damage. In this case, it is most likely Berkeley’s low-income residents. It is irresponsible and reckless to propose a measure that fails to provide any criteria for the method that the City will use to determine what properties to seize, and without providing assurances that a displacement prevention policy will be put in place first. 

Eminent Domain should be a rarely used tool, not a replacement for policy. This proposal would be like the U.S. threatening to use nuclear weapons for the smallest diplomatic dispute. It would be far more productive to identify vacant residential units and negotiate with the property owner to return the property to productive use. Offers to buy or lease such a property would likely be better received than threats of eminent domain. It is also unfair to City staff that would be required to do this work to have their research on options be poisoned by this threat. The possibility of misuse of eminent domain to advantage particular corporations needs to be addressed promptly given Berkeley’s recent history of letting certain developers evade millions of dollars in fees required of other developers. 

Eminent domain should be used as a last resort, when all other options for curing problem property issues are exhausted. Fines or liens are more appropriate tools than eminent domain. Low income or middle class property owners should not be victimized so the City should seek to work in partnership with them. City Council adoption of clear Code Enforcement priority guidelines would be preferable to this fishing expedition. 

The current proposal to search for properties on which to use eminent domain puts the cart before the horse. It is the responsibility of the City to protect its residents from the threat that eminent domain will be used to displace our disadvantaged communities or give unfair advantage to wealthy corporations. Therefore, a comprehensive policy to address displacement should be adopted before voting on item 22 on the March 15 agenda. 

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