Blighting the Way: Urban Renewal, Economic Development, and the Elusive Definition of Blight

By Gordon, Colin | Fordham Urban Law Journal, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Blighting the Way: Urban Renewal, Economic Development, and the Elusive Definition of Blight


Gordon, Colin, Fordham Urban Law Journal


What is "blight"? Over half a century of federal and state urban renewal policy, and a slightly shorter history of local economic development policies, revolve around this question. These policies, ranging from the first stabs at federally-funded urban renewal in the 1940s (1) to the contemporary fascination of local and state governments with tax increment financing ("TIF"), (2) all involve, to some degree, public financing of private economic development or property transactions. (3) In effect, such policies extend the public credit and the public power of eminent domain to private interests--a combination that has often incurred the opposition of both taxpayers and property owners displaced by urban renewal or redevelopment. (4) The legal and political justification for such policies, as a result, leans heavily on an overarching public purpose: the elimination or prevention of blight. (5) But "blight" is rarely defined with any precision in such statutes, and the courts have granted local interests almost carte blanche in their creative search for "blighted" areas eligible for federal funds or local tax breaks. (6) This political and statutory confusion is rooted in a long history of local anxiety surrounding inner city housing, (7) "slum clearance," (8) and the fate of the central business district. (9) A blighted area, as a Philadelphia planner proposed cryptically in 1918, "is a district which is not what it should be," (10) and it is woven through recent history, economic development and urban redevelopment policies. (11) The goals of such policies have always been to eradicate blight; however, as one California state legislator lamented in 1995, "Somewhere along the way ... defining blight became an art form." (12)

A few examples underscore the problem. In affluent Coronado, California, local officials declared the entire town blighted in 1985. (13) The resulting TIF zone diverted property tax revenues from the local schools, making the district eligible for supplemental school funding from the state. (14) The city then used the revenues from the TIF to pay for school improvements. (15) In the St. Louis suburb of Des Peres, local officials declared a thriving shopping mall "blighted" in 1997 because it "was too small and had too few anchor stores," and more specifically, because it didn't have a Nordstrom's. (16) The blight designation paved the way for a $30 million TIF deal that was used to attract the upscale retailer and other new tenants. (17) In Lancaster, California, local developers used a blight designation and the accompanying tax subsidies to develop a new mall in the mid-1980's around "anchor" stores including Costco, Wal-Mart, and 99 Cents. (18) When Costco threatened to relocate in 1998, Lancaster officials relying on the old "blight" designation moved to acquire the 99 Cents property through eminent domain--with the intention of giving it to Costco outright, a tack which the courts, in a rare check on local blighting, condemned as "nothing more than the desire to achieve the naked transfer of property from one private party to another ... to satisfy the private expansion demands of Costco." (19)

Clearly "blight" has lost any substantive meaning as either a description of urban conditions or a target for public policy. Blight is less an objective condition than it is a legal pretext for various forms of commercial tax abatement that, in most settings, divert money from schools and county-funded social services. (20) Redevelopment policies originally intended to address unsafe or insufficient urban housing are now more routinely employed to subsidize the building of suburban shopping malls. (21) And such policies (especially state TIF programs) not only ignore the ongoing urban crisis, but by subsidizing sprawl, routinely contribute to blight in the cities under the pretext of fighting it in the suburbs. (22)

I. FIGHTING BLIGHT: THE LEGAL AND LEGISLATIVE BACKGROUND

The modern statutory definition of blight is rooted in our first urban crisis, the Progressive-era response to the urbanization and industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. …

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