A vote on a Delaware House bill to give Wilmington officials the ability to seize vacant property was postponed until Thursday after City Council members and concerned citizens pushed for state lawmakers to delay action on the proposal, which has quietly moved through the House in recent weeks.
News of the vote’s postponement came a few hours after city and county elected officials, as well as civil rights and housing advocates, gathered Tuesday outside the Carvel State Office Building on North French Street in Wilmington. There, they called for state representatives to put the brakes on eminent domain legislation and allow for public comment and discussion.
“We really need to slow this down,” City Councilwoman Yolanda McCoy said during the news conference. “House Bill 458 is something that was rushed and put upon us. We had to learn from our state delegation what was going on. We needed to make certain that everyone knew what this was.”
McCoy and Council President Ernest “Trippi” Congo remained in Wilmington while Councilwoman Zanthia Oliver headed to Dover to ask for state lawmakers to postpone the vote. Other council members who have pushed back on the legislation include Michelle Harlee, Linda Gray and Shané Darby.
House Administration Committee chair Rep. Valerie Longhurst said they pushed the bill’s vote to Thursday to allow for community outreach on the proposal.
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The information meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Wilmington PAL Center, located at 3707 Market St. in Wilmington.
Eminent domain “has a long history of disproportionately impacting low-income, African American communities,” said Jennifer Thompkins, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League.
Thompkins said that while Wilmington’s population is more than 50% African American, the census tracts where the city’s vacant properties are concentrated is 80% or more African American.
What often happens is the vacant homes are renovated and sold or rented out at an increased price, decreasing affordability in that community, said local activist Colby Owens.
“Therefore, people are displaced. No city can survive without growth,” he said. “No city can survive without reinvestment, but you have to do it in a way that does not displace the people who are here already.”
Civil rights and housing advocates stressed that rather than pushing for eminent domain, state lawmakers should turn focus to housing bills that will help low-income residents and communities of color.
Legislation that would make it illegal to refuse housing to people who receive government housing assistance; provide the right to legal representation for renters during eviction proceedings; and protect people experiencing homelessness from discrimination in the housing search are all stalled in the House. This is despite those bills being introduced over a year ago, some of them having already passed the Senate.
Brandon Fletcher, chair of Delaware’s NAACP Housing Committee, said eminent domain legislation is unnecessary.
“It would only loosen the existing protections for property owners while broadening the city of Wilmington’s power to use eminent domain to assemble land for greedy private developers,” Fletcher said. “We need housing policies that serve people, not real estate.”
The eminent domain proposal was first introduced June 7 by Delaware state Rep. Nnamdi O. Chukwuocha, a Wilmington Democrat, and was passed out of committee a week later.
Currently as written, the bill would give Wilmington officials the ability to take vacant property for “community development” if it’s unoccupied for three years or longer.
It would remove the current state law’s requirement of public use when a property is “vacant or abandoned” and the City Council and Wilmington’s mayor have issued an ordinance declaring that taking the property would be “part of a community development plan necessary to prevent the decline or decay of the building or its surrounding area.”
Despite current eminent domain provisions allowing municipalities to seize property to remove “blighted” areas by razing structures that are “beyond repair or unfit for human habitation” or acquiring them outright, supporters of the bill claim revisions are needed to expedite acquisition.
“It’s not fair to the people who live there to have to deal with these vacant properties on their block,” Councilwoman Maria Cabrera said, adding that there are residents and community leaders who support the eminent domain legislation. “The crime, the property values going down, those are the people’s voices who should be heard and should speak up on this. They are the ones pressuring us to do things quicker, but nothing ever happens.”
City Council members supporting House Bill 458 have also pointed to the legislative body’s ability to weigh in on the process when approving the seizure, and Mayor Mike Purzycki said the vacancy period – currently written in the state bill as three years – could be extended by the council.
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