Earlier this summer, when suspicion about our federal court system was already raging at white-hot levels, stoked pyromaniacally by neocons in Washington eager to undo 50 years of judicial progress, the Supreme Court casually tossed a tad more gasoline onto the flames.
The justices issued a ruling that opened up the possibility of giving local governments the power to condemn private property and then turn it over to private developers for large-scale projects. Local government has long exercised the right to condemn private property for public uses if it can convince the courts that such a public use was in the community's interest. But this new ruling was loudly condemned everywhere as signaling a major foray into new, dangerous territory.
So loud were the anguished cries of protest over this decision that local politicians all around the country felt obligated to "take the pledge," foreswearing ever doing anything that remotely resembled such behavior in their own hometowns.
And so in Albuquerque our elected leaders quickly rushed to reassure the voters that they would certainly never condemn private property in order to turn it over to private developers for anything not recognized as a "public purpose." Mayor Chavez was among those loudest in his declarations to keep our burg pure.
Now, however, we are hearing from a number of private homeowners who, as they tell their stories, sure seem to be describing a long-standing practice here in River City that sounds perilously close to the exact process that Chavez and the majority of City Council members have piously pledged to avoid.
It is called our "nuisance abatement" ordinance, and it is all perfectly legal.
If a bar or motel or liquor store in a neighborhood becomes a source of criminal activity and nearby landowners complain loudly enough, the police are summoned and the owners warned that they have to put a stop to said activity, be it petty crime, drug use, public drunkenness, prostitution or violent assaults. And if they don't stop it, the city will take the property away by going to District Court and getting authorization to shut it down.
It's all perfectly reasonable, and since it was enacted in Albuquerque there have been several high-profile success stories that have built support within the citizenry for this approach to "fighting crime" and cleaning up problem neighborhoods. Among others, the Blue Spruce and Yucca Lounges, the Gaslite and American motels have all been shut down through the use of this ordinance.
But there's a dark side to nuisance abatement, too. Single-family homeowners have also felt the sting of this law. Grandmothers have lost their homes over allegations of drug trafficking by their grandchildren. It is a process that too-readily lends itself to abuse of authority; one without sufficient safeguards against becoming "urban removal," the hated label that many early ventures in civic redevelopment earned.
What adds significantly to the menace of nuisance abatement as currently practiced in the Duke City is that it is now used well outside of the original "hotbed of criminal activity" territory it was intended to address.
Instead, the pattern is now for the police to enter a private residence for the investigation of a reported crime and, once inside, discover "code enforcement" problems—relatively minor deficiencies in the construction of the home or in electrical outlets, plumbing, roofing or land use. Bingo! The family is forced out; the city moves to condemn and another property has become available for redevelopment.
There is a city-financed program that could be an alternative approach to dealing with the housing code violations that are now producing evictions under the nuisance abatement ordinance. It's still on the books and it would keep struggling, economically marginal homeowners in their houses by lending them the relatively small amounts of money needed to fix the places up.
The program, "City Housing Rehab," is unfortunately one that is used less and less often in the current climate of "close 'em up and move 'em out!" In 1999, the city authorized 68 home renovations under the program at a total cost of $2.4 million. Last year, it authorized a mere 21 such projects, for barely $900,000.
But the worst aspect of this situation is the city's budget has actually increased the amount set aside for the rehab program ... it just isn't being spent. The need has never been greater; the money to fix homes is sitting there, but the administration, instead of helping out the poorest of our homeowners, is choosing to evict them as nuisance abatement targets instead.
Once the previous landowners are gone, the city's current policy is to tear the original dwelling down and turn the property over to a builder who will erect some more acceptable type of dwelling on the site. Just the way the Supreme Court said they could.
It's all perfectly legal. It has lots of support from builders and developers. The public likes to see the city bulldozers knock down old derelict buildings. Only the families who are now homeless or who are reduced to renting instead of owning are griping.
As public policy, however, it leaves a great deal to be desired—especially when a program that could make it unnecessary is on the books ... but is just quietly ignored.