Higher Dread: A Chicago Public University Is Poised to Seize Private Property

Bill Tong grew up on the northwest side of Chicago. He's the grandson of Chinese immigrants and feels a deep sense of responsibility to preserve his family's legacy.

That's impossible now.

Bill has been fighting for months to stop a state university from seizing the property his family has owned since just after World War II -- and he's about to lose.

Bill's story sounds like those of many others whose property has become the object of desire for government bureaucrats. When most people think of eminent domain, they probably imagine the government seizing a cornfield to build a highway. But eminent domain has become a real threat to individuals and families like the Tongs, who don't have the deep pockets necessary to fight back.

Bill grew up in the building that Northeastern Illinois University, or NEIU, wants to take, which rests on a busy main street in a blue-collar neighborhood. Because racial discrimination kept their family out of area residential housing when they built the commercial property in 1954, the Tongs have always lived on the top floor. Now, Bill's elderly mother lives in the upstairs apartment, the place where she raised a family. The family business, a restaurant called Tong's Tea Garden, was downstairs. Today, the restaurant is called Hunan Wok and is owned by another Chinese immigrant, Maria Lin, who rents the space from the Tongs. Perhaps the most tragic irony of Bill's situation is that he is an NEIU alumnus, and worked as a lab manager at NEIU's Earth Science Department for about seven years, later serving as an adjunct lecturer at the school for several years.

But soon Bill and others who have called this stretch of the neighborhood their own will likely be cleared out by NEIU, which plans to bulldoze existing small businesses to make room for a developer to build apartment-style student housing. The development will also include private, retail shops on the ground floor, replacing businesses that have been on the block for decades.

The university refuses to change course on this plan, despite public outcry and the availability of more than 60 acres of undeveloped land on campus at its disposal.

NEIU President Sharon Hahs said this project is necessary because NEIU is the only Illinois state college without student housing. She claims the neighborhood is economically depressed, and this project will spur growth and revitalization. But the block is home to many small businesses, such as Caren Real Estate, Hunan Wok and Bryn Mawr Breakfast Club.

Ordinary people such as Bill Tong and his family can't afford to fund lengthy court battles. The state can, however, and government is almost always able to wait out anyone who refuses to give up his property without a fight.

This isn't just a Chicago problem.

Drought-crazed California is making moves to take 300 farms to build Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed water tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

In Glendale, Colorado, the local government is trying to seize property where a local family has had a carpet business for 25 years so a developer can build an "entertainment district."

At least seven property owners in St. Louis are facing down city officials who want to seize their land to make way for a supersized federal-government facility.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is making headlines with his plans to seize properties on Coney Island through eminent domain.

NEIU's president and other proponents of the government's prerogative to seize private property say they are well within their legal rights to pursue eminent domain. Under the law, they're correct. But "legal" and "moral" aren't always overlapping terms.

If the government can take land from Bill Tong and property owners in St. Louis and Colorado, the same thing can and will continue to happen to others across the country.