Last night I attended a screening of Little Pink House sponsored by the Institute for Justice. I knew going into it that the film would be thought provoking, and I was not disappointed. The comparisons between redevelopment abuse in New London and Charlestown were many, but one line repeated throughout the film resonated more than others:
“Economic development and social justice go hand in hand.”
Dr. Charlotte Wells’ mantra became the justification around which the City of New London and the State of Connecticut based their redevelopment plan. Whether well-meaning or not, folks looked upon the Fort Trumbull neighborhood as a place in need of revitalization. High unemployment, poverty, and declining property values plagued the neighborhood and contributed to New London’s sagging economy. Dr. Wells, Governor Aaron Douglas, and the city attorney with help from the City Council, partnered with Pfizer to make backroom deals that lined their own pockets under the guise of helping the residents of Fort Trumbull find a way out of their depressed neighborhood.
All for the greater good.
But, as Institute for Justice attorney Scott Bullock noted,
Some of the worst acts in history have happened “for the greater good.”
Much of the Kelo v. New London case depended upon public media. While Suzette and the Institute for Justice worked tirelessly to bring attention to the residents’ desires to keep their homes, the redevelopment company repeated their “social justice” line and assured people outside the immediate situation that they were treating the residents fairly.
Charlestown finds itself in a similar situation. As residents in Pleasant Ridge seek protection from abusive code enforcement and the threat of eminent domain, the City of Charlestown takes great strides to convince the rest of us that all is fair, and demolition of the entire neighborhood must happen if we are to move forward as a city (see how far they have gone HERE).
As evidence of their determination to provide social justice for the people in Pleasant Ridge, the City of Charlestown offers three examples of their “kindness”: 1) Allowing renters to live rent-free during a transition phase, 2) creating a Pathway to Homeownership program, and 3) partnering with the developer to provide alternative housing at Springville Manor for Pleasant Ridge homeowners.
From outside appearances these opportunities provide a benevolent transition…but what lies beneath?
- Live Rent Free to Save Money – The City applauds the redevelopment company that has bought many of the homes in Pleasant Ridge for allowing renters to live payment-free for several months prior to serving notice to vacate the properties. The basic argument is that if renters don’t have to pay rent, they can save their money and find another solution to their housing needs. This plan is flawed for a number of reasons. Among them, in addition to a shortage of alternative housing, the plan assumes that renters living in low-income housing don’t have any other use for extra money (medical bills, car repairs, etc). Additionally, much of the City’s argument for complete demolition of Pleasant Ridge hinges on the notion that all houses in the neighborhood are unsafe. While this notion is grossly inaccurate, if a house IS in such ill repair, how is it kind to allow a renter to live in it for any period of time?
- Pathway to Homeownership – In this plan the City partnered with a local real estate agent to help counsel renters on how to save money and repair damage to their credit in order to purchase a house. While such a program is indeed a great thing for a city to offer residents, not everyone WANTS to buy a house. Many people rent because doing so provides the best possible solution to their housing needs. Want an example? What of the person who does not have the ability or resources to maintain a home? One busted water heater, malfunctioning air conditioner, or leaky pipe might send them on a financial tailspin. People rent for a variety of reasons. It’s not kind to suggest that all renters are somehow lower class because of their choice.
- Springville Manor – I’ve written on Springville Manor before (HERE). I stand by my assertion that the decision to move from Pleasant Ridge into Springville Manor is one that is best made carefully from a person’s own unique situation. I am happy for those who find that this option is good for them. The idea that Springville Manor offers a winning situation for ALL property owners in Pleasant Ridge, however, is false. Mayor Bob Hall would have us believe that homeowners receive a bargain deal for a new and improved home at no additional cost when they elect this choice. This perception of benevolence is flawed. A homeowner who owes nothing on a well maintained property in Pleasant Ridge gains a minimum of $35,000 in debt by accepting this offer, while the developer presumably gains a profit for each unit sold. How is it kind to drive senior citizens from their comfortable homes when they have no desire to move? At what point do private property rights and freedom of choice mean so little that folks honestly consider this a happy alternative for all?
Public media has a major role to play in how things move forward in Charlestown, and from many angles it looks as though the City is winning in their attempt to convince us all that Pleasant Ridge must be destroyed. Just last night a Charlestown resident advised people in Pleasant Ridge to “Just sit back and watch [and] listen for bull dozers” in a Facebook comment in response to a post about the Little Pink House movie event.
But the crowd that gathered to watch Little Pink House last night saw a different public media message. Despite the violent imagery of Catherine Keener reenacting Suzette Kelo’s desperate attempts to sweep debris from demolition of her neighbor’s home off of her own front porch, and the palpable sadness when she loaded her deceased elderly neighbor’s body into the back of an ambulance, despite the fact that Suzette ultimately lost her Supreme Court battle over New London’s use of eminent domain, those of us who were paying attention can see a message of hope.
The Kelo v. City of New London case is widely considered one of the most flawed rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. In the wake of Suzette’s loss, over 40 states enacted strict legislation to prevent similar situations from happening in their own back yards. Indiana is one of those states. Much like New London, the City of Charlestown is misusing its power to circumvent private property rights. Unlike New London, the City is poised to lose this fight.
The City of Charlestown refused to advertise the Little Pink House movie event on its public electronic billboards because they claimed it was not in the benefit of the community. If you didn’t come out to see it, you missed out on free food, fun fellowship, and an incredibly thought provoking film, all things that are arguably beneficial for a community. I hope you’ll find another way to watch the movie, but if not, let me just leave you with Suzette Kelo’s closing line so that you can think of it next time you consider the situation in Pleasant Ridge:
“This is where we chose to settle and this is where we want to stay. This is America, the home of the free isn’t it?”
***Dedicated to the Pleasant Ridge families that have lost loved ones since the fight to keep their homes began – Although they did not live to see a happy outcome, may they rest in peace knowing that the battle goes on, and that nothing short of total respect for private property rights will bring its end**
Rhonda Jo Hays
*List courtesy of Tina Barnes – apologies if someone’s name was accidentally not included.
For more information about the people whose lives are most directly affected by Charlestown’s redevelopment plans click here: Dear John Neace
For more information about the Little Pink House movie click here: Little Pink House Movie
For more information or to donate to the Institute for Justice click here: Institute for Justice
For details about the Kelo v. City of New London court case visit Wiki at: Kelo v. City of New London