This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Dr. Karen Palasek, Director of Educational and Academic Programs for the John Locke Foundation.
It used to take three abandoned mattresses, junked cars, or overgrown lawn notices to get you blacklisted as a landlord in Raleigh. Two loud parties in two years used to net the same result.
But standards may be changing, thanks to a new law that lightens up on city landlords. Landlords in Raleigh may appear to benefit from the Raleigh City Council’s recent decision to relax the standards for determination of “bad landlord” status, but they should pause before they take advantage of looser regulations.
It’s not the ire of their neighbors, the disgrace of being a slumlord, the possibility of vandalism and increased crime, or even higher insurance rates that should have them quaking. It’s eminent domain, in the guise of economic redevelopment.
The N.C. General Assembly refused to act this session on a proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit the use of eminent domain for purposes of taking private property for economic development, or to eliminate blight.. Blight, according to lawmakers, “harms the health and safety or economic well-being of those who surround it.”
They chose not to make changes that would restrict the use of eminent domain to prevent its abuse. “We want to be sure that whatever we do…that we don’t take away the good things that can now be accomplished in North Carolina,” said Rep. Lucy Allen, D-Franklin.
Surely, these are two entirely separate issues: landlord regulations on one hand, and a proposed constitutional amendment concerning eminent domain on the other? The fact that these two situations happen to exist side by side right now is no doubt entirely coincidental, but a little alarming nonetheless.
Why? The attractiveness to lawmakers and local governments of eminent domain. A four-mattress-filled front lawn strikes me as an easy invitation to city government to take action in the name of economic redevelopment of a property or group of properties. Move the previous owners out, and move a new owner in.
Even if the junk and blight are not egregious, how difficult can it be to create a proposal for a higher-valued public use? The new landlord regs may just provide a scenario for easier and faster action under existing eminent domain law.
Well-meaning landlords do sometimes slip up. The intent of the landlord relief law—which requires a second vote by Raleigh City Council in July—seems to be to give landlords more of a benefit of the doubt regarding the care of their properties.
The new law would also impose penalties on those who push the envelope too far or too often. If that were the entire picture, one might judge the law by considering its likely effectiveness at balancing landlord laziness against the threat of monetary and other disincentives for neglect. Given eminent domain, however, the stakes are higher.
Relaxed regulations for landlords could swiftly net their properties a “blight” label, and much, much more serious consequences than fines, permits, and landlord classes. Were I a landlord in Raleigh I’d redouble my efforts to mow the lawn, fix up the place, keep the noise down, and clear out the junk cars and mattresses, instead of letting things slide a little further just because the law, assuming it gets final passage, says I can.
Here’s why. The value of residential real estate in Raleigh, given scarcity, growth, and other factors, is rising. Poorly maintained rental properties can almost certainly be replaced by more economically valuable alternatives, at least from the city’s perspective. And under current eminent domain law, condemning property in the interest of public health and safety is standard practice.
If the new relaxed rules for landlord upkeep “neuter the city’s defense against blight,” they also confer, perhaps quite inadvertently, a much more powerful means of dealing with it. It’s not much of a stretch from eminent domain to imminent domain under these circumstances.
Research completed by my colleague Daren Bakst illustrates just how precarious citizens’ property rights are, once government officials begin eyeing their property. Of the ten reasons cited why government will take your property if it wants to, I note a few of the author’s points on justifiable taking of private property in North Carolina: the opportunity for economic development, and government taking under eminent domain, followed by lease to a private concern for business purposes.
In addition, the existence of economic blight to as little as two-thirds of the targeted property, or the possibility that an area may become blighted in the future, will justify forcible transfer of one person’s property to another private party. These are particularly relevant to questions of property maintenance and property value in the landlord regulation area.
Landlords aren’t the only ones who may be adversely affected by the situation. Anyone with property within the boundary of a possible redevelopment area is at risk, even if only two-thirds of the targeted properties can be considered “blighted.” No neighborhood with an errant landlord is safe.
And what property owner can say that her property may never become blighted in the future? These are legal parameters without effective limitations. No doubt this is part of the reason that former Raleigh Councilman Kieran Shanahan has formed the
The Lockean principle of property rights states that civil society exists for: the protection of life, liberty, and estate (read: property); and to serve the private (non-political) interests of society. Political power in society means the right to make laws to regulate and preserve private property. So political power serves the public good by protecting property rights.
Community interests also have a role to play in Locke. Community force may be used to protect private property and thus preserve the public good. I note that the reverse is never true—the “public good” does not determine which property holders get to preserve their “estate” and which must surrender their property to satisfy communal goals.
We think about these kinds of issues at the Locke Foundation because Locke held that property is not owned by government, to be conferred on citizens as government sees fit. Property is a pre-existing natural right of people. Government provides the protection of those rights when it serves its proper function.
There is a conceptual difference between eminent domain and imminent domain. Eminent domain means government has the right to take your private property under specific, narrow circumstances. Imminent domain means they just haven’t collected your keys yet. There ought to be a real difference as well.