Urban Removal

It's the same old story, critics say: displacing blacks to make way for whites

Even though the Housing Authority got approval from the commission, it still has a long way to go to win over the residents of Pleasant City, a community that has a lot of reasons to be skeptical of revitalization plans.

Until recently, Ruby Bennett was a textbook Housing Authority success story. She grew up in a housing development and spent a good part of her adult life there. Then, saving up her tips while working as a waitress, she put down a deposit in 1975 on her own place. It was a four-bedroom, two-bath, concrete-block home off Comfort Place in the center of Pleasant City. Her graduation to homeownership shows how residents of public housing can, with a little official encouragement, move up the social ladder.

Ruby Bennett can't bring herself to visit her old home, where she raised seven kids. The house is filled with trash and signs that vagrants live there now.
Colby Katz
Ruby Bennett can't bring herself to visit her old home, where she raised seven kids. The house is filled with trash and signs that vagrants live there now.

In the new home, she raised three boys of her own. When a friend was shot and killed, she raised the dead woman's three boys too. A niece made it seven. Even with her kids long gone, there are reminders in that house of her children. There are the signs like "No parents allowed" on the bedroom doors, old concert posters in her kids' previous rooms, and bikes in the backyard now ridden by her grandchildren. "It was really a house full of kids," recalls the 61-year-old Bennett.

Three years ago, Bennett started getting harassing phone calls. She says it was a developer from Fort Lauderdale who was demanding her home. She doesn't remember the name of the caller or the company, but she remembers the message. "They kept saying they were going to take my house," she says. "I knew they were going to take it one way or another."

In April 2002, the West Palm Beach Housing Authority sued Bennett and 54 other landowners for the swath of land that will make up Merry Place. The lawsuit demanded the land under a legal proceeding called eminent domain. Dating back to English law, eminent domain was originally used by the government to take land for bridges, schools, roads, and other public projects. But courts began expanding the definition of "public use" in the 1950s and included to the refurbishment of blighted areas.

Still, using eminent domain to take land is a controversial move. The law is being considered in a U.S. Supreme Court case that could impact future land-taking efforts by local governments. In the Supreme Court case, the New London, Connecticut, city government tried to take land from homeowners to give it to a developer, who planned to use it for a marina. If the landowners win, it could keep governments from taking land unless it is for a "common sense" definition of public use, says Stephen Anderson, with the Institute for Justice, which is representing the homeowners in the case. "What's happening in recent years is a blurring of what is public use," Anderson says from his office in Washington, D.C. "We would like it returned to one that makes sense, like for a school, a post office, and not simply turning the land over to a developer."

Under Florida law, governmental agencies like the Housing Authority have the right to seize blighted property in the hopes of fixing it up, says Frank Schnidman, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who's an expert on eminent domain and has worked on the case now before the Supreme Court. Schnidman says there's an obvious public good in refurbishing blighted areas, but he says governments shouldn't become developers. "There's really a problem when government serves as a developer," Schnidman says. "You really have to question it. If the redevelopment plan was so good, a developer would have thought of it already."

In the Housing Authority's lawsuit, most of the landowners caved and agreed to sell their land. They split about $4.5 million for the 14 acres, a bargain for property so close to West Palm's downtown, where 3,000 new condominiums are planned. In comparison, a four-acre waterfront spot about five blocks away on North Flagler Drive sold for $30 million a year ago.

Some homeowners sold reluctantly, like Cleare, whose mother grew up in Styx and then built a home in Pleasant City. Cleare had the house torn down after her mother died in 1972, but she held on to the land for sentimental reasons. "That's the place where I was born and raised," she says. "I wasn't going to give it up." But Cleare says the Housing Authority threatened to keep bringing city code inspectors to the property any time the grass got too long or vagrants left trash in the yard. Fines would get bigger and bigger, she says they warned her. Two years ago, she finally sold her mother's property for $7,500.

Down the street, retired construction worker Michael Cleveland has refused to sell. It wasn't so much the idea of holding on to his small cinderblock home but of the idea of holding on to a neighborhood where he grew up, where he used to walk to the water to fish oysters out of the lagoon, where he'd walk to elementary school, and where moms used to ask neighbors to watch one anothers' kids. Cleveland says it was also about racism. He saw the plans as a way for the city to move African-Americans out of a neighborhood that has always been theirs. "I said it was racism back when they proposed it," he says, "and I still say it is racism."

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