"Eminent domain is 'a blessing… The only lottery I ever entered was the lotterythat I saw (DSNI) was having. They were building ten houses… I figured, youknow, I don’t have a chance to win this lottery. But, I ended up getting number10…Once I moved here, I said, they’re going to have to carry me out of this place.' "
Diane Dujon who won the chance to buy one of the first 10 homes in a lottery.Prior to owning her home Ms. Dujon had been sharing a room with her daughterin a small apartment.
The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in one of Boston’s low-income neighborhoods became the first community-based organization in the United States to be given eminent domain authority. Among the thousands and thousands of cases of the use of eminent domain to impose an outside government agency’s decision on a local community, Dudley Street stands out as a lesson in locally-controlled, democratic decision-making. It is also a case where rather than displacing existing residents, eminent domain was used to increase housing opportunities and improve the quality of life for existing low-income residents of the community.
By the 1980’s, Dudley, a neighborhood within the Roxbury community of Boston, three miles southwest of downtown Boston, had suffered from decades of disinvestment. Like hundreds of inner-city neighborhoods around the country banks and insurance companies in Boston had illegally “redlined” the community, systematically denying mortgages, business loans, and insurance to residents and businesses. One-third of the land was vacant or had housing that was abandoned. “Arson for Profit” schemes, where property owners would surreptitiously hire criminals to set their buildings on fire so that they could collect insurance payments, were rampant in the community. The community also fell victim to illegal dumping on its scores of vacant lots.
Dissatisfied with the long-term failure of city government to address the problems in Roxbury, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) was established with the help of the Riley Foundation in 1985 to help residents and business owners regain control over their community. Fearing that Dudley could be the object of yet another gentrification and displacement process where existing residents were displaced in the process of “improving” the community, DSNI created a very distinctive, innovative, and democratic process for redevelopment.
A convergence of economic, political, and legal opportunities enabled the local community to gain its own eminent domain authority. Ray Flynn, had just been elected with a progressive platform and was particularly open to new ideas from Boston’s often-ignored low-income communities of color. Provisions in Massachusetts state law as well as Boston City ordinances and practices also allowed for community-based redevelopment entities to be granted eminent domain powers.1
After months of community-based organizing and exerting pressure on key decision-makers, DSNI gained eminent domain authority over the 64 acre “Triangle” area of Dudley. Of 30 acres of vacant land, half were already owned by the city of Boston. Many of the other privately-owned half were already tax delinquent and prime candidates for takeover by the city and community. Rather than having a patchwork quilt of land parcels to work with, eminent domain power allowed the community to combine full-blocks of land into a single parcel that would be redeveloped under a community-led plan. Moreover, given the community control, the plan had existing residents’ interests in mind. The “public good” in this case of eminent domain was defined by the community and more tangible than the abstract down-the-road promises frequently associated with eminent domain.
Dudley and Roxbury: “A monument to racism and neglect”
According to the Boston Globe, in the late 1980s the Roxbury neighborhood “was one of the most blighted places in the country, a monument to racism and neglect.”2 The urban woes of the U.S. during the 1960’s and 1970’s hit communities like Roxbury hard. Government retrenchment, reductions in city services, decay of urban infrastructure, and extreme segregation all plagued the city of Boston in general. These negative forces converged on the residents and businesses of Roxbury in particular.
The population of Dudley was showing significant stress by 1980. Poverty, especially youth poverty, far outpaced the rest of Boston. In 1980 the poverty rate Dudley was 31%3 The rate for Boston overall was 19% that census year.4 The unemployment rate was double the unemployment rate of the rest of Boston, starting at 6.1% in 1960 and reaching 16.3% by 1990.5 The white population of Dudley dropped from almost 95% in 1950 to just over 14% by 1990, while the black population increased from under 5% to almost 55% in the same time. However, at the same time, the overall population of the neighborhood decreased by 40%.