Loony Tunes in Detroit

One has come to expect that professors will say silly things, and here is a bit of data to support that thesis. A fellow named John E. Mogk, identified as a law professor  at Wayne State University in Detroit, has favored us with an op-ed in the February 25, 2011 issue of The Detroit News (Change Law to Fight Speculators) in which — ta, da! — he at long last identifies who done it — who brought Detroit to ruin, that is.

Can you guess? Was it the departure of the city’s population fleeing to better housing in the suburbs? The riots? The “white flight”? The deindustrialization of the city as manufacturers moved out? The collapse in the safety and quality of public schools?Student bussing?  No, no, no, no and no. According to Professor Mogk, it was those “speculators,” that’s who. You see, the city of Detroit “has always faced excessive price demands” in eminent domain cases, says he, and that’s why it’s in the sad shape it is. Boo hoo. Evidently, Professor Mogk has never heard about courts — you know, those folks who try eminent domain cases, hear and pass on appraisal testimony, determine rules of compensability, and in the end award “just” compensation which all knowledgeable commentators — to say nothing of the courts themselves — concede to be inadequate, merely partial compensation that at best leaves the displaced condemnees undercompensated, while subsidizng the redevelopers with public funds.

Professor Mogk sounds like he never heard of abuses of redevelopment takings  for which Detroit became notorious, like the Foster litigation, or the Poletown taking that  displaced a whole community for the benefit of General Motors, an effort that not only failed to provide anything near the promised 6000 jobs, but in the long run didn’t keep General Motors from going bankrupt. Ditto in the case of Chrysler.  

Just how he would drive out those “speculators” from the Temple of Justice, the professor tells us not. Small wonder. What he has in mind has been tried and it failed. Big time. The country has undergone a major change as populations of older Eastern American cities took advantage of government housing policies and financing guarantees, picked themselves up and moved to the suburbs, leaving behind the deteriorating cities where over the past half century fewer and fewer people want to live. And it’s not only Detroit, even if it is the worst-case scenario. There is also Flint, Gary, Cleveland, Newark, Camden, Kansas City, St, Louis, Philadelphia, Hartford, Bridgeport, etc. etc. 

So is there a solution to Detroit’s predicament? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Either way, it took us a half century of pursuit of wrong-headed government policies to get into the current predicament, and it will take decades to get out of it — assuming we have the determination to do it. The fact is that suburban living is more agreeable than city living, suburban schools are better and safer than their urban counterparts, and over the long run home ownership — even today — has been a good investment and tax shelter  for most families.

So assuming we have the determination to bear the social and economic burdens involved in restoration of American cities — a dubious proposition — it will take decades of effort  to reverse the unfortunate trend of the past half-century. If Professor Mogk knows of a shortcut, he should share it. Denouncing “speculators” won’t do it. Certainly not in a city where the government can’t even give away houses it acquired in tax sales.

For our views on this subject, stated in more detail, see our article in 4 Albany Journal of Government Law 101, 129-135 (2010)

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