Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

October 29, 2013

Eminent Distraction?

By David Reiss

The Urban Institute posted Eminent Domain:  The Debate Distracts from Pressing Problems. The issue brief concludes

The negative indicators shared by municipalities that have considered the eminent domain solution (e.g., high unemployment, low incomes, high proportions of underwater homeowners, slower HPI recovery, etc.) indicate that their shared problems extend beyond housing. These cities have traditionally suffered from lack of investment, high crime rates, concentrated poverty, and other general barriers to opportunity. These factors contributed to their poor performance during and after the housing crash, and the relief efforts to date, both from lenders and policymakers, have been modest relative to the scale of the problem.

Yet it is unclear that seizing loans through eminent domain will produce the desired outcomes: preventing foreclosures and, thus, ensuring that the community fabric and the municipality’s economy remain intact. For example, Richmond is targeting performing loans in PLS, and while the eminent domain plan is designed to help underwater mortgage holders, investors assert that nearly a third of target loans are above water. In contrast, a much wider universe of nonperforming, underwater loans is in private-label and agency securities that are, arguably, at more immediate risk of default. Additionally, implementing eminent domain will likely have repercussions in the housing finance markets that will lead to higher interest rates and down payments.(14)

The conclusion then outlines “some less disruptive alternatives.” (14) I am not sure that I agree with all of the conclusions of the report.  For instance, I doubt that there would be higher interest rates and down payments as a result of the use of eminent domain by municipalities.  Lenders have notoriously short memories (for a survey of short lender memories, see This Time Is Different.) But this issue brief is important because it is not looking at the legality of the use of eminent domain — others have done that — but at the practicality of this approach. And it raises serious concerns that will need to be addressed by its proponents.

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