Down with Blight

February 26, 2008 at 2:49pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

I’m getting pretty tired of all the blight abuse going on in Lincoln. In the latest situation, the City Council blighted a single block in Near South so that a single owner can tear down his apartment buildings and put up townhomes. Regardless of the proposal’s appropriateness for the area, the Council is wielding the power of blight inappropriately.

A blight designation is a powerful thing. It opens the door to tax increment financing (TIF), which can help encourage (re)development in areas that need it. That’s all well and good. But blight also opens the doors to other government tools. Tools like eminent domain, for example, which has a long history of abuse.

The City Council has used blight designations as a way to support individual developers for quite some time. In some cases, the support is probably warranted. Developers who otherwise could not have afforded to complete a project were able to add value to a part of the city that really needed it. In other cases, however, the Council has wielded the power of blight inappropriately, subsidizing developers at our expense. Consider how the City nearly wiped out a handful of businesses at 17th and Q to support John Q. Hammons, or how the block that now houses Embassy Suites was cleared, only to sit idle as a parking lot for years.

In most cases, it seems that what the City Council really wants is a way to hand out taxpayer support to select developers or projects. Personally, if they’re going to subsidize these projects, I would prefer they do it without the full weight of a blight designation. Using my money to support specific projects is one thing; using my money to support those projects and having the ability to pry property from its owners without their consent is too much for me.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that property can be taken from its owner and given to somebody else if the government determines that the new owner’s use will be “better” for the community. Thus, regardless of the City’s past and present use of eminent domain, Lincoln can, at any time, legally declare a property blighted, acquire it via eminent domain, and hand it over to a person of their choosing. They can rob from the poor and give to the rich, so to speak. And it’s all Constitutional, according to the folks in powdered wigs. Although Lincoln rarely pursues the “nuclear option” of eminent domain, I prefer to remove the temptation except in those cases where the possibility of its use is truly appropriate.

What we need is a “blight light”, an option to target properties or areas for redevelopment without hanging the (often inappropriate) blight label around their necks. Developers can still get their handouts (yay!) but area property owners don’t have to worry about being kicked out. Does such a thing exist? If so, why isn’t it used more frequently? If not, presumably such a mechanism would require an act of the Unicameral, so I don’t see a change coming any time soon.

What are your thoughts on the frequent use of blight in Lincoln, and the potential ramifications of the label?

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The Comments

Neal February 26, 2008 at 3:55pm

I’m with you, Mr. Wilson.

It amazes me how many of these projects that receive blighted designations were projects that were going to go forward anyway. Isn’t the purpose of the designation to encourage improvements?

When they are projects that were already going to happen, what is TIF beyond just a taxpayer subsidized gift?

Fletch February 26, 2008 at 9:17pm

Damn it, I agree with Neal again. What’s the world coming to?

Dave K February 26, 2008 at 11:11pm

Don’t worry, he’s just disappointed because the TIF money could otherwise be going to socialistic government programs. smile

Susan Neyhart Roper February 27, 2008 at 1:40pm

Dear Mr. Wilson,

There is a blight designation starting north of G Street and thereabouts with some creative gerrymandering.  I looked at every building so designated, and could not make sense of it.  Mostly there are good buildings, businesses and churches.  Some ugly multiplexes that are possibly problematic.

Your insight about developers getting dough through such designation: how do they do it?  What is the plan?  Qui bono?  Why and for whom?

I have a quixotic plan to be part of preservation, the revitalization of downtown/Centennial Mall/Near South/Everett Neighborhood, but don’t know how to get help.  I work like a scullery maid, pay my bills (on three extraordinary buildings), and am bleeding money. 

So your research on following the money is especially important to me.  I read that Mr. Olderbak has poured a great deal into these areas, and with all due respect for his efforts, not in the way that I would.  (i.e. multiplexes with granite counters; tearing down the home at 17th & Washington;“plush”—UGGH—carpeting, and just in general the icky business of gas stations and fast food. . . .)

So any more work that you do in the way of revealing the processes of who gains is much appreciated.
Susan Neyhart Roper

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