Working Paper No. 11-38:
Let There be Blight: Blight Condemnations in New York after Goldstein and Kaur

Author(s):

Ilya Somin

Date Posted: September 2011

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Abstract:

The New York Court of Appeals’ two recent blight condemnation decisions are the most widely publicized and controversial property rights rulings since the Supreme Court decided Kelo v. City of New London.  In Kaur v. New York State Urban Development Corp., and Goldstein v. New York State Urban Development Corp., the Court of Appeals set new lows in allowing extremely dubious “blight” condemnations. This Article argues that the New York Court of Appeals erred badly, by allowing highly abusive blight condemnations and defining pretextual takings so narrowly as to essentially read the concept out of existence.

Part I briefly describes the background of the two cases. Goldstein arose as a result of an effort by influential developer Bruce Ratner to acquire land in Brooklyn for his Atlantic Yards development project, which includes a stadium for the New Jersey Nets basketball franchise and mostly market rate and high-income housing. Kaur resulted from Columbia University’s attempts to expand into the Manhattanville neighborhood of West Harlem. When some of the landowners refused to sell, Ratner and the University successfully lobbied the government to declare the land they sought to be blighted and use eminent domain to transfer it to them.

Part II addresses the issue of blight condemnation. Goldstein and Kaur both applied an extraordinarily broad definition of “blight” that included any area where there is “economic underdevelopment” or “stagnation.” In addition, the court opened the door for future abuses in three other, more novel, respects. First, it chose to uphold the condemnations despite evidence suggesting that the studies the government relied on to prove the presence of “blight” were deliberately rigged to produce a predetermined result. Second, it dismissed as unimportant the fact that the firm which conducted the blight studies had previously been on the payroll of the private parties that stood to benefit from the blight condemnations.  Finally, the court refused to give any weight to extensive evidence indicating that Ratner and Columbia had themselves created or allowed to develop most of the “blight” used to justify the condemnations. The court’s approach opens the door to future abusive condemnations and violates the text and original meaning of the New York State Constitution.

Part III discusses Goldstein and Kaur’s treatment of the federal constitutional standard for “pretextual” takings. In Kelo and earlier decisions, federal courts made clear that “pretextual” takings remain unconstitutional despite the Supreme Court’s otherwise highly deferential posture on “public use.” Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has been extremely unclear as to what constitutes a pretextual taking. As a result, courts have taken widely differing approaches to the issue. Nevertheless, Kaur and Goldstein are outliers in this area, deferring to the government more than almost any other court that has addressed the question since Kelo. They virtually read the concept of pretext out of existence.