Taking over land and unfulfilled promises of a “public good”
The Jefferson Village case raises the fundamental question of whether or not governmental resources and power should be used to support a private market development based on the promise of future general public good—in this case the promise to create a new middle-income community in the city. This was not the first time a promise was used by the government to take over homes and businesses in Detroit. In the much-publicized use of eminent domain to take over Detroit’s Poletown community on behalf of General Motors and its promise to build a new auto plant and create 6,500 new jobs, the City cooperated with General Motors, the United Auto Workers, and the Catholic Archdiocese in using eminent domain or the threat of eminent domain take over to raze 1,500 homes, 144 businesses, 16 churches, a school, and a hospital in the early 1980s. Initially deemed legal in a 1981 Michigan Supreme Court decision, the project went ahead. Only after Poletown was leveled and it was apparent that the new jobs never materialized, did the same court overturn their decision as a mistake.
The court suit brought by the 18 Jefferson Village residents opposing the use of eminent domain was filed under the still hovering legal cloud of the original 1981 Poletown decision. Although the Jefferson Village suit was settled out-of-court , one Jefferson Village resident felt that their public and legal fight did allow them to gain some leverage to request particular benefits, such as receiving relocation benefits or swapping their existing home for a new home in the Jefferson Village development. Several residents have been able to remain because their homes were designated as being suitable for rehab. However for most, the matter was ultimately settled when the last few holdouts “bowed out” by taking some form of relocation benefit.
The simmering backlash to the Jefferson Village, Poletown, and other uses of eminent domain to further private interests became even more noticeable following the 2005 Kelo vs. City of New London U.S. Supreme Court decision which supported local and state governmental agencies’ use of eminent domain powers in obtaining and then transferring property to private for-profit interests. In Michigan, the fallout from multiple eminent domain cases and opposition to the Supreme Court decision was passage in 2006 of a state constitutional amendment significantly restricting the use of eminent domain for certain private purposes. The amendment passed by a 80 to 20 percent margin.
This has created a legal and political climate that is a bit more cautious in the use of eminent domain and certainly its use without a more visible community input process. In its efforts to “right-size” the city, the most recent Detroit development plan reflects both the recently imposed legal restrictions as well as sensitivity to the emotional toll taken by decades of heavy-handed government decision by requiring that no resident be forced to move. Any future relocations will strictly be voluntary.
Little has changed in Jefferson Village in the last 10 years. Only 100 or so of the proposed 400 homes were built before the early stages of the economic collapse hit Detroit in 2006. Other homes remain unfinished. Over half the land in the 88-acre site is still vacant. A commercial strip that is part of the development has only recently found a new grocery store tenant.
The use of eminent domain to clear a small piece of land and create a model suburb-in-the city development in downtown Detroit was a bold move in a city that endured a “perfect storm” of population exodus, job loss, business loss, and deteriorating tax base. On top of this, the Jefferson Village project felt the full headwinds of the national economic collapse, which hit the housing sector particularly hard. It has been a vision not fully realized, a solution not fully tested. Has there been sufficient “public good” coming out of this eminent domain process? As the city continues to struggle, the answer may still be somewhere down the road.
 George Corsetti, “Poletown Revisited” in Counterpunch, Sept. 18, 2004. http://www.counterpunch.org/2004/09/18/poletown-revisited/. Accessed online January 1, 2016.