Richard Wasserman
Community Uprooted: Eminent Domain in the U.S.
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Reflecting the demographics of Detroit itself, Jefferson Village is a primarily African-American community. The partially completed development of new upscale homes is located adjacent to the Detroit River just minutes from downtown.

 

The city of Detroit wanted to transform a lower east side neighborhood in order to increase property taxes and population. A major obstacle to their plan was that the 90 acre site was already occupied by 223 homes and apartments. Without consulting any of the homeowners, the city enlisted a developer to implement the plan to replace the existing homes, which were worth an average of $30,000, with 400 new homes costing about $175,000 each. Detroit attempted to buy all the property, but some 50 homeowners refused to sell. City officials used eminent domain to oust them in 1999. It was common knowledge that the area had been in decline–many of the homes were abandoned and in poor condition. However, the remaining residents argued that the city bought many of the properties and failed to maintain them, thus causing much of the blight in the neighborhood.

 

Many of the original homes were classic Arts and Crafts buildings with stained glass windows and beautiful detailing. A large number of the evicted residents had been living there for over 40 years–one since 1929. Eighteen homeowners sued the city in an attempt to stop Detroit from proceeding with the development and to not lose their homes. During the litigation it became known that the son and sister-in-law of the mayor were both employed by the developer building the new homes. The city denied any impropriety.

 

Construction of the new homes was moving ahead until the economy started to collapse in 2006. Only a small number of the 400 planned homes have been built and several of those are unoccupied. Numerous buildings have not been completed and are sitting open to the weather, slowly deteriorating. Streetlights are beginning to lean (perhaps they weren’t installed correctly?) and weeds are growing in the empty lots. While I was working, several people stopped to ask if I had any connection with the builder. They were extremely hopeful that maybe, at long last, something was changing, and construction was about to start up again. I felt remorse when I had to tell them that I had no connection with development and that I was simply documenting their neighborhood. The people living in Jefferson Village obviously take pride in their homes, which are well kept and lushly landscaped. I don’t know what the solution is. Somehow, the rest of the homes need to be built, so this can be a stable, vibrant, and viable community. I hope the residents can stay here and grow old with the trees.