Residents in a North St. Louis, Mo., community are battling to keep their homes as city officials pursue eminent domain proceedings for a federal project that may not even take hold in the area.
Eminent domain enables the government to take private property for public use as long as the government provides just compensation.
St. Louis officials have begun purchasing property and assessing the value of homes in the region to make way for the potential relocation of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
The federal government has not yet decided whether it would move the building to the area, leaving residents uncertain about the future of their homes.
The NGA currently resides in South City St. Louis, but officials are hoping the federal government will relocate the building to the city’s north side in an attempt to reverse “decades of divestment.”
John Wright, a policy researcher at the Show-Me Institute, which is based in Missouri and advocates for free-market solutions, said residents he’s spoken to “feel like they’re being thrown under the bus.”
Others have told Wright the project is nothing more than a land clearance project to rid certain types of people from the predominantly black, working-class community.
“What they say is that they want to revitalize the community,” Wright told The Daily Signal. “I don’t know how you revitalize a community by getting rid of everybody who lives in the community and replacing it with a federal spy agency.”
City officials have begun evaluating homes, offering some residents $20,000 to $30,000 for their property, according to Wright. He said that is not nearly enough compensation for individuals to afford another home in a similar low-crime community.
The houses in the North St. Louis neighborhood were built of brick in the late 19th century. Wright said purchasing a similar Victorian house in the city would cost between $300,000 and $400,000.
“People don’t want to move; they don’t want to leave their community,” he said. “Some of these people have had these houses for generations; some were purchased back in the ’60s. We have retired people on a fixed income who live in these houses, and now they’re going to have to pick up and move, and they don’t know where to go.”
City officials have already begun excavating properties to survey the land and have prevented a grocery store from moving into the area.
Paul Larkin, director of The Heritage Foundation’s project to counter abuse of the criminal law, said even eminent domain proceedings can destroy the value of the land.
“If you have a house and it’s worth $100,000 and the government decides it’s going to take your house, in theory they’re supposed to pay you $100,000,” Larkin told The Daily Signal.
“But if on Jan. 1 they announce they may be taking it, but they’re not sure and they’ve started the eminent domain process, you may no longer have a $100,000 house … because if you sell it to someone, that person is going to be subject to whatever the state wants to do with it.”
Residents in the North St. Louis community have posted anti-eminent domain and anti-NGA signs along with Bible verses around the neighborhood. Wright said one woman posted a biblical verse reading, “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s house.”
Wright said the neighborhood, which is already depressed from leveled houses and a shrinking population, is a tight-knit, family-oriented community. Dozens of homeowners could lose their property as early as this summer, forcing families and retired individuals to relocate.
“If they do this here, you’re kicking people out. You’re destroying a community,” he said. “These people don’t know where they’re going to go or what they’re going to do.”
Larkin said residents are never fully compensated for the loss of their homes because the government doesn’t pay for the personal value placed on property.
“Where you live is an important part of who you are. It’s how you define yourself,” he said. “It’s not simply a place that protects you from the elements, it’s not simply a place that has memories for you, but it has a way of becoming a part of who you are as a person, and now they’re going to take this person’s home away from them.”