Rebecca Furdek

In 2005, James Dupree bought a dilapidated warehouse and garage. Today, after almost a decade of steady investment and physical labor, the once-blighted space is now a vibrant 8,600-square-foot studio showcasing over 5,000 pieces of art.

In a Philadelphia neighborhood marked by vacant houses and parking lots, Dupree’s studio is a bright spot of entrepreneurship and esteemed cultural value. His paintings have won numerous awards, are displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and sell for upwards of $40,000 each. He has hosted and taught public art classes at his studio, and plans to launch a mentorship program for inner-city youth that focuses on fostering entrepreneurial and aesthetic appreciation skills.

However, “I definitely want a grocery store,” says Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell. And, decided the city council, a nice location for this grocery store would be on Dupree’s lot. While the building plan itself is essentially undetermined, with no potential tenant even identified yet, the city sent Dupree a letter to condemn his successful studio.

He has two choices. He can accept the pitiful sum – slightly over ¼ of its most recent appraised value –the city offered and painfully watch his decade of investment be bulldozed away, or he can fight.

He chose the latter. “I built this place up myself,” says Dupree. “I’m not just going to roll over and die.”

The letter was sent in December 2012. To this day, he continues to fight, and he recently painted on his studio’s exterior a mural featuring a grotesque human hand reaching for a building, with a warning below: “HANDS OFF My Business.” The mural and his story have, rightfully, captured national attention, as well as a renewed interest in the greater issue at stake – eminent domain.

Eminent domain is the process through which government is allowed to take private property to benefit the public use after providing just compensation to the original owner. Traditionally, this process would apply to largely undisputed investments such as a much-needed road or a new school. However, increasingly throughout the 20th century and even still today, far too much of this property is taken from individual property owners (often small businesses or homeowners) and being handed to other private entities, primarily corporate developers.

In essence, the government is abusing its eminent domain power by picking and choosing value among true property owners and wishful ones. All too often, bureaucrats decide if your property is worthy to withstand their own plans.

Eminent domain was, fortunately, scaled back a bit in the last few years, in light of the infamous Kelo case in 2005. There, the Supreme Court outrageously held that local officials can subject private property to eminent domain solely because they can imagine some alternate use for it that might possibly generate greater tax revenue. Suddenly, according to that logic, all homeowners were in danger. Legislation immediately reflected this public outcry and disgust, with 45 states quickly rewriting their eminent domain laws to provide more sound protection for property owners. Of course, such property grabbing was also slowed down by a sluggish economy in the past several years.

However, as the economy has begun to pick up, so has eminent domain. Last year alone, a number of new property-grabbing techniques have sprung up from California to New Jersey. Increased administrative capacity and regulation have contributed to this resurgence of eminent domain, and Mr. Dupree’s property is a perfect example.

“Seizing James Dupree’s art studio is not only unconstitutional and a gross abuse of eminent domain, it is unconscionable,” said a letter signed by a diverse group including members of the Philadelphia art community, the ACLU, and the conservative Americans for Prosperity. It’s unconstitutional, of course, because the potential grocery store is a private entity, and because the city’s compensation is far from “just.” It’s unconscionable because it’s absurd. Dupree has teamed up with the Institute for Justice to urge the city council to reconsider its plan.

In this highly partisan age, the diversity of Dupree’s supporters is promising, and truly speaks to the salience of the issue at hand. The resurgence of eminent domain as a modern civil liberties issue presents a new opportunity for millennials to consider the value of personal property and home ownership, as many of us are first entering the job and housing markets ourselves.

Millennials should be concerned.

I belong to this generation, one which has been oft-cited as the most entrepreneurial generation to date. While job prospects are sluggish and many in my generation face staggering student debt, many millennials continue to capitalize on new technologies by creatively juxtaposing this with their own innate talents to create start-ups, small businesses, and independent sources of income. Creative entrepreneurship is, perhaps, the truly 21st-century face of the American dream.

Therefore, Dupree’s property becomes a celebrated symbol of American success for my generation, and the issue becomes one to be all the more outraged about. This isn’t just art – it’s also capital. Not only did Mr. Dupree follow his passionate and talent for art, but he managed to substantially enrich his own property value, generate a high amount of revenue, and culturally enrich his community. He’s a success story. And yet, how is he rewarded?

Arbitrarily condemning creative entrepreneurship sends a message that bureaucracy has little respect for individual entrepreneurs and small business. It seems to contradict any sense of reason that in a blighted neighborhood, the city would want to demolish the block containing one of the most successful and celebrated cultural highlights of the neighborhood.

Not only is private reshuffling of property by government unconstitutional, but it’s disrespectful to any hardworking individual who falls victim to such poor policy. It’s time that bureaucrats stop restricting private entrepreneurs from flourishing by stripping away their fairly earned property rights. It’s time to celebrate property investment and entrepreneurship, not condemn it.


Rebecca Furdek

Rebecca Furdek is a Young Voices Advocate and a law clerk at the Institute for Justice.