More important than property rights

Published 10:44 pm Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The right of a person to freely use his property as he sees fit is a bedrock principle of American liberty. A person’s right to property starts with his right to make decisions for himself — his most precious possession. With limited exceptions that are expressly delineated in the state and federal constitutions, a person’s right to make those decisions about himself — and by extension about his physical property — cannot be infringed upon. Any government action that violates a person’s property should therefore be subject to the most intense and skeptical scrutiny.

Thus it is that the case of a group of Hobson property owners came to the attention of a federal court recently. The owners alleged that the city of Suffolk discriminated against them when it issued notices that their buildings would be demolished.

On the face of it, the city’s actions easily could have been construed as unfair to the property owners. But the background of the case makes all the difference in understanding. Each of the properties had received multiple notices of building and housing code violations. The violations were as severe as a caved-in roof on one home. All posed health and safety dangers to the owners and the people of the community. All of the violations had made the structures unfit for habitation.


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The owners had sought taxpayer money to fix the properties and had run into roadblocks in that process. For whatever reason, they had made no apparent effort to pay for their own improvements.

Last week, a federal judge threw out the complaints against the city and its housing authority, effectively giving the city the right to continue with its plans to demolish the old buildings. Despite the initially apparent affront to property rights, the judge’s decision was right on track. Even property rights must eventually yield to concerns of public safety. Even the right of self determination must be denied when the choices one makes put others in jeopardy.

There was no discrimination involved in the city’s decisions regarding the dilapidated, animal-infested and dangerous Hobson properties. Instead, there was a longstanding desire that folks in a community would do what they needed to do to improve their community by improving their own properties to the degree necessary to make them safe. When they failed to do so — and after repeated warnings about what lay on the horizon — the city finally began its condemnation proceedings.

Hobson will be a better place when this ordeal is over, despite the unfortunate need to trump property rights.