an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
VS. EMINENT DOMAIN
I have always been fond of great orators, civil rights activist and leaders’ powerful speeches and eloquent interviews from the past like U.S. Congressman Adam Clayton Powel Jr., Malcom X, Martin Luther King, H Rap Brown and Fred Hampton to name a few. It is within my nature, when provoked or an injustice has been done to me, my family or the people I love, it will unleash another side of me. I am not afraid of fighting, whether it be physically, verbally and legally. After all, I am the same man that has been to trials by judge and by jury and never pleaded guilty to any charges against me. After being out of prison for five years, in the summer of 2003, I would be faced with another battle over ancestral property that I inherited from my father and paternal grandmother. My father had always told my brother and me that we were sitting on a gold mine because where we lived was the inner city and so close in proximity to downtown, that the city would have no choice but to grow east of the highway that segregated the city.
The once bustling area that thrived with Black businesses and later riddled with crime and had become slum and blight over the course of three decades was now the target of Urban Renewal also known as Black and Brown removal. It is also the public policy that drives gentrification, also known as domestic colonization. It is the history of the world where those in power conquer and take what they want. Conquerors and colonizers redefine and draw boundaries and borders because the acquisition of land is power, it always has been and always will be and if you don’t believe it, then go ask your “Land Lord – God” who has power and dominion over you to increase your rent and evict you when you don’t abide by his/her rules.
Real estate has always been one of the number one drivers of wealth and generational wealth in this country. I am the fifth generation of my family that descended from slavery and on both sides of my paternal and maternal family were property owners. I was the chosen one by default to fight and defend my paternal family and ancestors’ property rights against an eminent domain lawsuit filed against us by the city for our heir property and where I grew up. It held a sentimental value and special place in my heart once I learned the history of my ancestors and how they acquired the land. No one else seemed to care as much because it didn’t share the same space in their hearts as it did in mine and I was determined to fight for what belonged to me, my brother and cousins even if they didn’t want to. Some of them needed and wanted money and saw it as a windfall, I didn’t see it that way because initially the city and their contracted appraiser attempted to low-ball us with their appraisal of the property. They assumed that since the houses on the property were old and in bad shape and had seen better days that we’d be desperate and glad to accept any bone they threw at us.
I also believe that they thought since we were young and black with criminal records that we were ignorant and probably under educated. Little did they know exactly who they were dealing with and that I wasn’t a damn fool because my father had primed us to expect it one day, nor did they know that their lawsuit action would only provoke my fighting spirit. I began internet searches for everything I could find about eminent domain and the condemnation process. I would also go to the public library and study everything I could find about real estate appraisals for residential and commercial property and the appraisal approaches used to determine value. This knowledge would help me prepare my arsenal to defend and debate when it came time for our hearing. After losing my criminal trials, I never had too much confidence in hiring attorneys and I am a firm believer that no one else can speak or advocate for my best interest with the same passion that I have for the cause or issue whether I’m right or wrong in the end. I was going to represent my father’s estate that we inherited upon his death because this was personal.
When an area has been deemed slum and blight for a HUD Urban Renewal Block Grant, the property sales values in that area cannot be used as real estate market comps to determine the value of your property, therefore your property is treated as its own island even if your next-door neighbor’s property sold for a million dollars or there’s a multimillion dollar development across the street from you or a block away. In the free market those properties have a positive impact on the value of your property. However, in an area designated for urban renewal it’s as if those neighboring properties do not exist. These tactics are used to low-ball and take advantage of private property owners because it places them at a disadvantage and presents challenges in finding comparable properties to assess valuation. When the city acquires property with HUD dollars, they withhold the sales values from the market of realtors, and you must file an open records request for that information. During our eminent domain – condemnation hearing I argued that the appraiser used comparable properties that were vacant lots with zero improvements – home, building, trees, landscaping etc. and instead failed to use a cost approach because every property is unique based on the improvements it has. Even if all lots in a subdivision are the same size, it is the improvements that increase its value in addition to the land values that may in fact all be equal. He took no consideration for the mature trees on our property, concrete driveway, size and square footage and number of rooms and bathrooms of our home that was on commercial land. He only valued the land and the potential rent the property would earn over the next five years. I also argued that the we were not impeding the progress of any future development by the city because they had provided no site plans or blueprints for a construction project prior or that day and that their actions couldn’t possibly be motivated by good intentions to be honest, forthright and fair dealing by hiding the property appraisals of relative properties that it had already purchased in the area. I also challenged them to convince me why I should accept an appraisal offer for my property that was less that the tax-assessed value that year. All the members of the city’s urban renewal agency and neighborhood housing and community development department remained silent. Even the city’s attorney had no rebuttal for this salient point. I’m a firm believer that sometimes you have to shame people into doing the right thing and call them out to be their better selves. The three commissioners were responsible for hearing the case and determining damage value for the loss of property taken by eminent domain for a public use project. They all agreed and increased the award damage value of our original appraisal by the city.
This victory was not bad for a self-taught litigator without a formal legal education. Especially when you consider that you’re David vs. a Goliathan of city funded legal resources. I still had to file an appeal of the condemnation as a wrongful taking because the city still failed to meet or prove the burden of necessity in taking the property in the first place for a “public use” project. This didn’t mean that we would get to keep our property, but it meant that they failed in trying to screw over us. We still had a deadline to vacate the property because once a value has been determined, it means the Condemnor – Legal Definition. A governmental or semi-public entity that has condemned, or has the power to condemn, private property. In my case, it was the city’s Urban Renewal agency who filed the eminent domain/condemnation law suit now has ownership and acquires the property even pending appeal. Property owners are faced with the challenge of continuing to fight by not accepting the damage award money and leaving it in a trust fund with the county until a judge or jury verdict has been finalized in civil court. This may take several years and meanwhile you’re homeless and if you accept and use the damage award money to buy a replacement home, you are basically agreeing to the taking of your property and waive the right to appeal.
My brother and I would now have to come to terms with leaving the only environment that we had ever known and that was hard for both of us, but he took it a little harder. I had already begun visiting various communities touring model homes and looking at brand new homes to buy. It was a bittersweet prospect that we had to endure because it meant that we’d start a new life in a new environment, in a new home and leave the house that we grew up in that our father bought and remodeled from his own design. The house would later be demolished and end up a vacant lot even to this day 15 years later. I knew that house like the back of my hand and can still visualize it my mind ever so clearly. It is a house that I could re-create with an architect, engineer and financial resources to build an improved version.
A few months later I’d regrettably allow someone to represent us in the eminent domain/condemnation hearing for my paternal ancestor’s home next-door to the lot and home we grew up in. In this case I was not the sole owner, but my brother and I along with our 10 first cousins from our father’s siblings each had their parents share of the estate, and six of them had lived in California their entire lives and really had no emotional ties or interest in the property, and the remaining four lived in Texas, with one in Houston and the remaining three residing in the same city we did.
I’d learn during the hearing that one of my cousins wrote a letter to the city basically begging them to buy our grandmother’s property. I was so outdone and shocked because I never knew he had done this behind our backs while at the same time I knew that when people are destitute and face financial hardships, they are desperate for money. I was not desperate for money and my ancestors’ property meant more to me than money. I was ultimately done with that branch of my cousins, because it was that desperation later that compelled the city to come after both properties when we were never interested in selling. In the end, we’d only get out of that property the city’s low-ball offer because I decided to listen to a person who claimed to have relationships with people at the city and had negotiated real estate development deals. However, he had no real estate or broker’s license and the city attorney would use that against him to discredit his opinion of value. I was pissed because as I said before I’d much rather speak for myself than allow anyone else to, whether I’m right or wrong I can accept the outcome because it’s all on me. The one positive that came out of this fight was that my ancestors’ home would be preserved and rehabilitated by city and HUD money because it was a historical landmark in the city.
My great, great grandfather on my father’s maternal side was a slave who bought that land and built a home on it after Emancipation and during Reconstruction. He passed it down to his son, who would pass it down to my paternal grandmother and she left it to my father and aunt. Why is this significant? Because all too often as African Americans we cannot point to a place that is the origin of our family that descended from slavery, and that house remained in the same family for at least 125 years.
It also means that my family lived there since the 19th century during Reconstruction and Black Codes used to incarcerate former slaves for minor criminal offenses. They lived there at the turn of the 20th century, during the Great Depression of the 1920s, during the Jim Crow South of the 1950s and during the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement. They made contributions to the city that I call home and once I learned about their stories; it inspired me and gave me a new sense of pride.
Darwin Hamilton is a 5th generation Austinite, and senior accountant, having served in state government for over two decades, a criminal justice activist, advocate, and author of his self-published his memoir 25 Years Later: A Sentence from Crime to Redemption, Resilience, Advocacy and Leadership. His op-eds have been published in the Austin American Statesman and by the ACLU of Texas. He’s a 2018 graduate of Leadership Austin – Essential program and JustLeadership USA (JLUSA) cohorts. His personal mission is to change criminal justice policies and practices and reduce the stigma of formerly incarcerated people. He does this through his own example, and through his inspiring and powerful story-telling. He serves as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors with Grassroots Leadership, Advisory Board member of Inside Literature and member of the Oversight Board of Travis County’s Public Defender Office.
Selection from Darwin Hamilton, 2018. 25 Years Later: A Sentence from Crime to Redemption, Resilience, Advocacy and Leadership. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform