NJ Town Revives Eminent Domain Abuse of 1950s

Nancy Lopez is 57 years old and has lived in the Gardens neighborhood of Mount Holly, New Jersey, for more than two decades. A single mom, she raised her five children there while often working two jobs. For nine years, she was a preschool teacher and could walk to her job from her home.

On Wednesday of this past week--just three days before Christmas--she received an unwelcome appraisal from the Township of Mount Holly for her home. She has until January 15, 2011, to accept the amount the Township has offered her, or it will condemn her home through eminent domain, kick her out of the Gardens, bulldoze her house and give her land to a private developer.

Nancy's tight-knit community of row homes has crumbled around her at the hands of the Township. Since 2000, officials have been buying up and knocking down the homes under the threat of eminent domain, in a stark replication of 1950s-era urban renewal. There used to be more than 300 row homes in the Gardens; now, less than 100 remain. To intimidate homeowners into selling over the years--and especially around the holidays--the Township has strategically parked bulldozers around the community, making it more of a demolition zone than a neighborhood.

Many of Nancy's neighbors are quite elderly. Most are African-American or Hispanic, and are typically first-time home buyers. Many have lived here since the 1970s and have become best friends. They take care of each other--especially the widows. The Gardens provided an opportunity for each of these families to put their roots into the ground, to buy an affordable piece of the American Dream, a home to call their very own. They are proud of their homes.

But Mount Holly's government officials could not care less. They want to take the land and give it to Keating Urban Partners, a developer from Philadelphia that wants to build a fancy new development with expensive town homes. So the Township is using the force of government--eminent domain, which is supposed to be for genuinely public uses like roads and schools--to kick these people out of the homes they have worked and saved for their entire lives. Widows in their 80s and 90s who haven't had a mortgage payment in decades will be forced from their comfortable, well-decorated row homes into tiny apartment rentals, likely outside of Mount Holly and most certainly far away from the next-door neighbors that have helped take care of them on a daily basis for years.

The Township won't even offer replacement housing in the new development to residents of the current community. It couldn't be clearer why: Mount Holly officials don't want Nancy and her neighbors in the Gardens anymore. They don't make enough money, so they are no longer welcome. The current owners need to go somewhere else so wealthier people can move into the new, "improved" Gardens.

And that is not the end of the outrage.

As the Town has acquired the row homes, they have boarded them up and recklessly demolished them, while they are still attached to lived-in homes. Homeowners have actually had their houses hit by bulldozers. Heating units have been destroyed. Many have gaping holes in their roofs, which have led to mold infestations and leaks. Sidewalks are ripped up and left unrepaired. Once the buildings are knocked down, the Township lets the lots grow over with weeds. Dangerous mini-construction sites dot the community, where kids run and play.

The Township purposefully neglected the Gardens community and cut back on municipal services. It closed down the community center and took away the playground, and sent a $14,000 grant for the center back to the state. Some residents report decreased police patrolling. All agree that the Gardens used to be a vibrant, close-knit, living and breathing community.

Now what's left is a redevelopment war zone. The Town has systematically killed Nancy's community through every means at its disposal, and is now making residents the proverbial offer they cannot refuse: If you're still living here, you better agree to our appraisal terms because either way, we're going to bulldoze your home.

In America, no one is guaranteed success, prosperity, a home or a job. But there is a sacred promise that is yours as an American, whether you're born here or just arrived: the pursuit of happiness. The Gardens homeowners staked their roots in once-fertile soil, and over the decades, with every second job, overtime shift, and every penny saved, nourished those roots with the sweat of their toil. Since the proposal for the demolition of their community was first announced, the homeowners have been fighting just as relentlessly to keep what they have worked so hard to own. Now, the Town is poised to use eminent domain to take all that away from them, and give their land--land into which they have sunk their labor, their love, and the seeds of their dreams--to a developer with far more money and far more clout so it can use their land for its private ends.

Mount Holly Township has an opportunity to finally do some good this holiday season: Even though it has largely destroyed the Gardens and stolen years from the lives of those that remain, the Township can still easily reconfigure the redevelopment to accommodate the remaining homeowners, or at the very least give Nancy and her neighbors replacement housing in the new development and make them whole. If Township officials do not show even that much decency to their fellow citizens, then may the ghost of this monstrous abuse of power follow them the rest of their days.

Christina Walsh is the director of activism and coalitions at the Institute for Justice. If you would like to help the Mount Holly homeowners, you can e-mail her at cwalsh@ij.org.