A group of Montgomery, Alabama residents, once too nervous to buck their elected officials, are organizing in protest what they say is the city's "reprehensible" practice of demolishing homes to sidestep state eminent domain laws.
"It's ridiculous the city is doing this," native Montgomery resident and de-facto community leader Karen Jones said.
"The city is intimidating people," she said. "They don't try to give people due process of setting up fines or even putting up a fluorescent poster in the front yard saying, 'We're going to demolish your house.'"
Residents and activists have accused city leaders of using a local blight ordinance to target low-income Montgomery residents so the city can take their property and re-sell it to high-end developers without paying compensation.
"We're calling it eminent domain through the back door," said Christina Walsh, director of activism and coalitions for the Institute for Justice. In the last week has taken on the case in Montgomery through its grassroots anti-eminent domain organization, the Castle Coalition.
"There's stories of property owners who have court orders demanding their properties be left alone and they come in and demolish them," Walsh said.
Eminent domain, the taking of privately-owned property by the government, is banned in Alabama except for use in publicly-funded projects. But Walsh speculated that city leaders were trying to sidestep that law and would eventually sieze the vacant lots through tax sale or re-zoning.
Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange vehemently denied the charge that the town had any organized plan to seize property and flout the eminent domain law. City leaders, he said, simply want to put a stop to the growing number of decepit and unstable properties that dot the city and prompt complaints from neighbors.
Eminent domain, he said is "not a route we'd go down. "
The Castle Coalition says it doesn't know of anyone who has been compensated for their demolished houses. Some homeowners have even been billed for the destruction. And their first avenue of appeal is back to the same city council members that approved the demolition in the first place.
Longtime Montgomery resident Jimmy McCall had been in and out of court trying to protect the home he was building when it was torn down in 2008. He later sued for damages, but the case has been stuck in appeals ever since.
"I think I need to be compensated for my house," he said. "On top of tearing my house down they put a lien on my property for doing the demolition."
Many of the homes and apartment buildings already torn down are located just blocks away from the sites of some of Montgomery's proudest moments in the civil rights movement, including the bus stop where Rosa Parks was arrested and the final stop in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.
"This is what freed all of us, so it should take care of the people who stayed here in Montgomery," Jones said of the city. "This district should be a historic district, actually. It should be trying to be preserved and revitalized."
Strange blamed a few outspoken residents, including Jones, for getting the city and the media riled up.
"It's just a blatant misrepresentation about what in fact is happening down here," he said. " We're cleaning up neighborhoods through local ordinances that have nothing to do with going through eminent domain."