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."
The city has so far approved 42 buildings for demoliltion through its blight ordinances, Strange said, and has torn down 33 private homes and two apartment buildings. The numbers are up from 2009 when the council approved 29 demolitions and carried out 22, all on single family homes.
City Council Candidate's Family Home Goes Down With Photos, Furniture Still Inside
Jones, who is running for a seat on the city council, was heartbroken when her own family home was torn down in April.
"I was born in the house," she said of the white, three-bedroom, one bath home that once belonged to her grandparents.
After her grandmother's death in 1988, the house was willed to her heirs. Children, grandchildren, cousins, and uncles have all passed through that house, Jones said. Up until the day it was demolished, someone was almost always there.
Jones said the famiy got a notice from the city citing it for a porch in disrepair. They prepared to fix the porch and bought the materials, but were then sidelined by her father's shoulder surgery.
She said she had never once been threatened with demolition or received any type of paperwork on the subject. Then a neighbor called, frantic that the house was being ripped down. By the time Jones got there, half of the structure was gone.
She said she was unable to stop the crews from finishing the job. The house came down fully furnished, family photos and heirlooms still inside.
Jones charges that she found out after the fact that the city had sent letters -- to her dead grandmother and another relative that had already passed away. She was later fined $1,225.
Strange responded that Jones was never listed as the property's owner and that her family had plenty of warning. He cited the fact her father got a permit to fix the porch as evidence that the family knew the city considered the house blighted.
Walsh questioned whether the demolished properties were truly decripit.
"Some may be in disrepair, but some we've seen are perfectly fine," she said.
Strange said that most of the blighted properties have been reported by neighbors who say they don't want to look at the rundown houses anymore and are concerned about their own safety.
"(They're) an eyesore and vagrants end up in there. A lot of drugs wind up in there," the mayor said.
He insisted that no structure that had any historical significance had been torn down. And while Walsh charges that the city's likely plan is to acquire the land and sell it to developers who will construct higher-end buildings, Strange said the city's involvement with the houses they tear down ends when the last piece of rubble is carted away.
"Sell it, develop it," is what he hopes happens to the the vacant land, but said the landowners, not the city, would have to negotiate with the developers.
Several city council members did not return calls seeking comment.
Montgomery Attorney Calls on City Leaders to Pay Residents Fair Market Value for Demolished Homes
Montgomery attorney Norman Hurst, who has represented McCall and two others in various court cases and appeals related to the blight ordinance, blamed the city for letting such a historic area fall into disrepair and then decide to tear down people's homes instead of helping them to clean up their properties.
The blight ordinance has "given the government too much power because it's arbitrary," he said. "I can look at a property with layman's eyes and say it can be torn down, but legally these people have rights."
"Why not give people fair market value for their property?" he asked. "They're not concerned about their citizens, they're concerned about the bottom line."
McCall says he had not finished building his house when it was demolished. After buying the property less than a decade ago, he tore down a portion of the structure that already existed on the land, including an aging wooden foundation, and was re-building with a new addition for him, his wife and his two children to live in.
"It was an off-and-on thing," he said. "I had to keep renewing my permit."
Strange said the city saw it differently and that McCall had dragged his feet.
"It was a started building that never got finished," he said.
When the house was torn down, McCall estimated he had spent between $150,000 and $200,000 on the renovations.
McCall said he was eventually awarded $123,000 in damages in district court, but the city appealed. No final decision has been made. For now, the property sits empty.
Many of those involved, including Hurst, said they have no intent to sue, fearing it will make a bad situation worse. They say they just want the city that they are proud of to start doing right by its residents.
Hurst said the typical Montgomery resident that has had their house torn down is black, poor, uneducated on what their rights are and not politically connected.
Walsh said the Castle Coalition is hoping to change at least some of that. Members will be traveling to Montgomery on Saturday to host a free workshop at the St. Matthews Missionary Baptist Church. Frustrated residents will be given tips on how to protect their homes as a unified group by contacting state and federal leaders and making sure their stories get publicized.
"These issues are so politically and morally reprehensible that if these members of the public can fight back they can win in the court of public opinion without going to court," she said. "Especially in this economy you don't seize something somebody has worked their entire life for, for economic development."