Monthly Archives: September 2019

Remember Berman v. Parker?

If you don’t, that was the 1954 case in which the District of Columbia pioneered urban redevelopment in which selected parts of cities, designated as “blighted” would be razed and turned over to private redevelopers who would build privately-owned new buildings. Doing it in Southwest Washington was exemplary of what at first was called “slum clearance.” Later, it became known as “blight clearance,” “blight” being a much more elastic term than “slum clearance. Eventually, it led to the outrageous 4 to 5 Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London which permitted the taking of an entire unoffending lower middle class neighborhood in order to provide higher taxes and a bunch of high-ticket shops, condos and a marina for the enjoyment of the well paid tech employees of the nearby Pfizer pharmaceutical company. But it didn’t work out. After wasting some $100 million, nothing — nothing whatever — was built on the New London site.

In the Berman v. Parker case the US Supreme Court approved the redevelopment process as the sort of “public use” referred to in the Fifth Amendment’s Taking/Just Compensation Clause of the US Constitution, even though the new, redeveloped structures would be privately owned.

In the Berman case, what became known as “slum clearance” displaced the poor folks and built expensive mid-rise apartments and townhouses. The poor  folks whose plight was supposedly the justification for this process got evicted and pushed into other, worse parts of the District of Columbia where they had to pay higher rents. It was a bait-and-switch scam; the original redevelopment plan provided that the newly built, redeveloped area would be one-third affordable, charging rents of $17 per room per month. But as soon as the court gave its imprimatur to this project, that part of the plan was deleted. For the background of this story, that provides readers with the messy details, read Amy Levine, Urban Renewal and the Story of Berman v. Parker, 42 Urban Lawyer 423 (2010). It tells all.

The legal basis for the Berman opinion (written by Justice Douglas) was just plain wrong — he explicitly confused the police power and the power of eminent domain and asserted that eminent domain was the police power.

Anyway, after the initial hoo-ha over this “wonderful” project, things went downhill. At first, Southwest Washington became the home of some rich and famous folks while the former occupants of the area, being largely month-to-month tenants got nothing or next to nothing. 

In time, things did not work out; as the author of the relevant part of Wikipedia’s writeup  put it “However, urban renewal did not fully succeed in Southwest for many of the reasons that plagued other Modernist renewal efforts. Areas of the neighborhood remained run-down, low-income, and somewhat dangerous. This situation intensified in the 1980s and the 1990s, when Washington had among the lowest per capita incomes and highest crime rates in the nation. The Southwest urban renewal has been called a case study of everything urban renewal got wrong about cities and people.'”

We can personally attest to much of this story because back in 1963-1964 your faithful servant lived in the project area, in one of those aluminum and glass domed townhouses put up in the “old Southwest.” But as time went on things didn’t work out, and as the above quote makes clear, the Southwest redevelopment project grew worse. So now a new, new redevelopment project is going up in its place. Will it work this time? Who knows? Stay tuned.