An attorney who represented property owners in various government-takings cases would often tell me that, “property rights are human rights.” This became one my favourite mantras. It is true that homes, businesses and land do not represent objects. These objects represent their owners’ aspirations and dreams.
This idea was born out of Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 796, which set in motion the return of a prime piece of Manhattan Beach property to the descendants of its previous owners. News stories have focused on the racial-justice aspects of the case, but it’s also a story about property rights—and how a taking can deprive generations of their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In 1912, Charles and Willa Bruce purchased the property and built a small resort with a café, lodge, and dance hall that catered to African American residents who were denied access to many Southern California public beaches. The state Senate outlined the savage history of what followed.
The Bruce family, along with black visitors, were subject to harassment and threats from both white residents and white supremacist organizations. However, the Bruce family insisted on staying. A campaign by Whites to turn the land into a park was started. Manhattan Beach’s city officials declared the neighborhood unsafe and confiscated more than two-dozen properties through eminent possession.
The parcels sat vacant for decades before they were transferred to the state and then to Los Angeles County. There was no compelling need for the park—only a frenzy to keep African Americans out of the city. When the government exerts eminent domain—the power to take private property by force, upon the payment of “just compensation”—it ought to do so only in the most limited circumstances.
The U.S. Constitution allows such takings for “public uses”—but the courts have given local governments vast latitude in making those calls. The term “public use”, as it was originally defined, has been twisted into “public benefit” by the courts. This trick allows City Hall to seize property whenever they feel that this new use will be more beneficial for the public.
In recent years, that has meant that local agencies can take a thriving small business and hand it over to a chain store because it offers more benefits than the old one—e.g., it pays higher tax revenues or helps revitalize a downtown block. Bruce’s Beach shows that not only can traditional eminent property be used (parks highways courthouses etc. ), but they also have the potential to be misused. This is because the government can take land that belongs to one owner and then give it back to another.
Her dissent at the U.S. Supreme Court Kelo decision (allowing the taking of a home to make way for a pharmaceutical plant), then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted, “The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power….As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more.”
Bruce’s Beach demonstrates that those with less political power suffer the most from the loss of property rights. Ironically, the progressive politicians who championed compensatory legislation were the most keen to allow the government to increase its power to seize private property through regulation and eminent domain.
Yet, in the early 20th century, city officials viewed the removal of African Americans from white neighborhoods as something that advanced the “common good.” O’Connor saw that the only way to ensure the safety of the poorest residents was to preserve their property rights. This would allow individual owners to tell venal politicians or bigoted neighbours to pound the sand.
The city compensated the Bruces, but often the government becomes cheap when it comes time to pay up. And the core element of property rights is the right to say “no”—even when officials and the broader community disagree. This taking, despite the amount paid, did not harm the couple or their customers but also their descendants. This took them away from something far more important than their land.
In my coverage of the state’s now-defunct redevelopment agencies, I talked to local officials who argued that their latest urban renewal projects were better for the community than the “tawdry” businesses and homes that stood in the way of progress.
For them, I’d offer this quotation from 18th-century British statesman William Pitt: “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter, the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!”
Also, property rights are human right. Perhaps the California Legislature is starting to heed that lesson.
This column appeared in The Orange County Register for the first time.