I find land use issues interesting.  This is true with urban development.  It may be even more true with urban disinvestment (and, even more particularly so, with attempts to reverse urban disinvestment).

A term often employed in urban redevelopment conversations is “blight.”  In general, the word “blight” is used to describe decaying or otherwise undesirable uses of land in urban areas.  If you do a web image search for “urban blight,” you’ll likely get the general picture (literally).  Blight sounds like a simple concept.  But defining blight is far from simple.  There is a reason why a picture is worth a thousand words.

In Tennessee, state law grants local public “housing authorities” a variety of eminent domain powers to attempt to address urban blight.  These powers include the ability to condemn and acquire blighted parcels.  These powers even include the ability to acquire non-blighted parcels as part of attempts to address nearby blight.  After acquisition, housing authorities can transfer such parcels to other private actors to redevelop such areas.

As an example, under state law, if a certain parcel is “blighted,” a housing authority could acquire the blighted parcel and adjoining non-blighted parcels for the purpose of transferring all such parcels to a private developer.  In other words, even if a property owner maintains a parcel in a well-kept manner, a housing authority could still attempt to condemn the owner’s property by eminent domain for the purpose of facilitating redevelopment of other, nearby blighted property.

Most people likely would be surprised at how much eminent domain power housing authorities have when dealing with blight.  Most people associate the use of eminent domain with the development of “public uses” such as roads, schools, and other governmental functions.  But in the context of blight, Tennessee law provides that “public use” includes direct or indirect public benefits resulting from private economic development.  In other words, in the context of blight, taking property involuntarily from one private actor to give it to another private actor for private economic development can still be a “public use” under state law.

This brings us back to the meaning of “blight.”  The ability of housing authorities to involuntarily seize blighted and non-blighted property by eminent domain is no small power.  Indeed, there’s a reason such power is called “eminent domain.”

One of the few limits on a housing authority’s power to address blight is the meaning of blight itself.  In other words, if an area is not blighted, a housing authority’s eminent domain power is significantly curtailed.  But the only way to determine if an area is “blighted” under the law is for the law to define “blight.”  Unfortunately, this is easier said than done because blight, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.

The Tennessee Housing Authorities Law defines “blighted areas” as “areas, including slum areas, with buildings or improvements that, by reason of dilapidation, obsolescence, overcrowding, lack of ventilation, light and sanitary facilities, deleterious land use, or any combination of these or other factors, are detrimental to the safety, health, morals, or welfare of the community.”  If you still do not know exactly what blight means after reading this definition, you are not alone.  In fact, I am not sure I fully understand this definition myself.  Moreover, courts in other states have found similar blight definitions unconstitutionally vague and thus unenforceable.  It remains to be seen whether Tennessee’s blight definition would survive a similar challenge.