WSJ Opinion: Dallas Property-Rights Abuse

The city drives out long-time businesses to make way for hipsters.

Most Americans are aware of ways that cities abuse eminent domain to snatch property for the private use of the politically favored. Less well known is an equally pernicious process by which government gradually strips property owners of their right to use their property while offering no compensation.

The legal term is “amortization,” which allows municipalities to use zoning laws to force people or businesses they consider undesirable off their property. Under amortization in Texas, property owners are typically given a time period to recoup some investment in their property before they are prohibited from using it as they prefer. This has ugly human consequences.

In 1974 Hinga Mbogo and his wife, Grace, immigrated to the U.S. from Nairobi, where he had learned to repair broken farm vehicles. After arriving in Dallas and saving money, the couple opened an auto repair shop on Ross Avenue, then a major auto district. But the neighborhood has since gentrified and the city now sees the street as a gateway to its arts district.

Mr. Mbogo’s auto shop has made him an honest living and sewn his family into the Dallas community, but Hinga’s Automotive Company doesn’t conform to the city’s new hip vision of itself. In 2005 the city changed its zoning laws to exclude auto-related businesses on Ross Avenue. Though Mr. Mbogo owns his property and his repair shop gets top reviews, he is on the cusp of having to shut down the business he spent years working to build.

Since the city rezoned the area to force him and other businesses out, he has been in a fight for time. Originally given a five-year amortization date of 2010, he won an extension to 2013. In 2013 he applied for a special 10-year extension but was given only two more years to use his property as he wished. On Wednesday he will appeal to the Dallas City Council in a last bid to avoid going out of business.

The city defends stripping Mr. Mbogo of his livelihood on grounds that this will allow the area to become more developed. But Mr. Mbogo has no plans to open a yoga shop or wine bar, which means he will have to sell the property, likely at a discount because buyers know it is a forced sale.

Amortization in his case violates Mr. Mbogo’s property rights, and its retroactivity strips him of due process. That should alarm Texas voters, who acted to protect property rights after the U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious Kelo decision in 2005. In 2009 the state, with overwhelming support from voters, amended its constitution to ban private takings in the name of economic development.

Like eminent domain, amortization takes advantage of property owners, often those of small means who are least equipped to fight. Mr. Mbogo has the support of the Institute for Justice and others in Dallas. We hope the city gets its wheels realigned.

Wall Street Journal Opinion dated Apr 12 2016







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