Courtney and Ted Balaker have a great essay in USA Today about eminent domain and a movie they plan to make about Suzette Kelo—the woman at the center of the controversial Supreme Court case that altered the way we think about the government’s ability to take your land.
Their movie is titled Little Pink House, and it is based on the book by the same name by Jeff Benedict, one of my favorite writers.
Each of Jeff’s books read almost like novels, so much so that I have accidentally typed “novel” more than three times in this post. He uses extensive interviews, news articles, public records, and other sources to bring characters and events to life in compelling stories. I recommend Without Reservation… without any reservations. Poisoned turns a potentially boring tale about e. coli into a gripping account of human suffering and triumph. Little Pink House does the same—except for the triumph part.
Suzette Kelo fell in love with an old house and fixed it up herself. And then she learned that the city planned to use eminent domain to acquire her entire neighborhood.
I can imagine how that must have felt. In 2012, I bought a 90-year-old foreclosed home, and I found out a few weeks later that the city had decided to condemn the house for building code violations ranging from peeling paint to shower knobs that you could turn to the left or the right to turn the water on. (Sounds like a great reason to condemn the house, right?) For more than two years we have chipped away at the violations. We have rebuilt much of the house with our bare hands. I can’t begin to tell you how enraged I would be if I found out that after all this rebuilding, the city wanted to take my home for anything—much less for the purpose of helping a third party, such as a for-profit business.
That was the situation with Kelo. The city was using eminent domain to take her home for a new corporate facility for Pfizer. Kelo became the lead plantiff when the Institute for Justice decided to help the residents fight to keep their homes.
And they lost at the Supreme Court, which ruled that aiding private industry to increase tax revenue was a legitimate government purpose justifying eminent domain. Never mind that Pfizer never built the new corporate complex on the now-bulldozed properties.
In their USA Today piece, the Balakers outline not only the Kelo story, but also the problems eminent domain poses for social justice.
The powerful bullying the powerless — that’s the opposite of inclusion. And how about diversity? Eminent domain abuse typically strikes poor and minority communities. Not at all compassionate, but it encapsulates the Barclays Center’s dodgy backstory, in which officials flattened a neighborhood that was more diverse than powerful to erect a massive complex that has enriched developers and the NBA franchise that calls the facility home.
We all should be concerned about the abuse of eminent domain because it could happen to us—and it could happen to our neighbors, our brothers, and other people who have worked hard for what the abuse can take from them.
I met Suzette Kelo several years ago when Benedict, who began teaching at my alma mater after I had left, brought her there to give a speech. At first, she was on script and her presentation was rather dry. But then, as she started answering questions, her true passion for the cause showed forth. I don’t remember all that she said, but the tone of her voice and her poise spoke volumes.
“They took my house!” she said.
And that is something no one should have to say.
I look forward to seeing the movie!