DOVER — In light of pushback from the Wilmington City Council and community members throughout the week, state lawmakers halted their push to pass eminent domain legislation for the city on Thursday.
House Bill 458, sponsored by Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha, D-Wilmington, would have provided the city of Wilmington with the authority to seize vacant or abandoned property for community development efforts. The bill would require the mayor of Wilmington and the city council to certify that the seizure was part of a community development program or to prevent the “decline or decay of the property or its surrounding area.”
Prior to the House session Thursday afternoon, Rep. Chukwuocha, along with Rep. Stephanie T. Bolden, D-Wilmington, Sen. Darius Brown, D-Wilmington, Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, D-Wilmington, and Sen. Sarah McBride, D-Wilmington, released a joint statement to announce that the bill would be held until the next legislative session.
“House Bill 458 was put forward as a means to empower Wilmington officials, giving them the authority to take action about vacant properties that serve as magnets for crime and diminish the financial security of surrounding homeowners. However, a lot of questions, concerns, and misunderstandings about what this bill does and does not do has sparked considerable discussion in our neighborhoods, among community leaders and throughout the City of Wilmington,” they said in the statement.
“We love the city in which we reside and know that doing nothing is not an option. But we also understand the concerns community members have raised and the desire for more conversation about this proposal. For those reasons, we have agreed to hold HB 458 this session. We are hopeful the ongoing dialogue will bring us closer to a mutual understanding among the city’s elected officials and its residents regarding Wilmington’s plan to encourage the development of safe and affordable housing.”
The bill was scheduled to be heard during a House Administration committee meeting on June 15, but prior to the hearing of the bill, the meeting was adjourned due to time constraints. HB 458 was not reassigned to the subsequent House Administration committee meeting the following day and was instead signed out of committee.
Earlier this week, the bill was placed on the House agenda for Tuesday, sparking outcry from residents and city council members who called on lawmakers to slow down the process.
On Tuesday afternoon, local advocates and Wilmington City Council members gathered at the Carvel Government Building to express their displeasure with HB 458, including Jennifer Thompkins, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League. Ms. Thompkins said the organization was opposed to the bill, stating there are ways to provide secure housing other than expanding upon eminent domain laws.
“What this bill does is that it has a long history of disproportionately impacting low-income African American communities,” Ms. Thompkins said.
“Many of the census tracts where Wilmington’s vacant properties are concentrated have populations that are 80% or more African American. Creating special rules governing eminent domain use in Wilmington’s primarily African American neighborhoods may be inconsistent with the Fair Housing Act and, specifically, regulations around disparate impact.”
Wilmington City Council President Ernest “Trippi” Congo spoke at the event and commended Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker, D-Wilmington, for not signing on to be a co-sponsor of the legislation, as well as Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-New Castle, who has since removed her co-sponsorship. He stated that he was concerned due to the lack of communication from Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, but also said that the city council was not trying to stop the legislation, rather simply understand it better.
“A lot of us on council understand that (eminent domain) could be a good tool to get rid of some of the eyesores that are in our city, but it can also be abused and that’s our concern,” Mr. Congo said.
“Our concerns are why is it being rushed? I know I did not hear about this bill attempting to be talked about in Dover from our mayor, I heard it from state legislators, so why would the mayor not have a conversation with council members first to get our feedback and input? Why would we not have a community forum to get the community’s feedback and concerns and input? For it to be fast tracked, that’s extremely concerning to me and other council members.”
As a result of criticism and questioning from the community, the bill was moved to Thursday’s House agenda. On Tuesday night, Rep. Chukwuocha took to Facebook to offer clarification regarding what the bill would do.
“What this bill does is to give our city the opportunity to take those property owners into court and say ‘If you’re not going to do something with your property, we’re going to take it from you and put it into a landbank so it can be redeveloped as a part of a community plan,” Rep. Chukwuocha said in a video.
“This bill only enables the city council to have the opportunity, it provides them with the tool for their toolbox. They have the ultimate power about when and where to utilize it.”
Rep. Chukwuocha wrote that there were “misconceptions and outright lies” about the bill, including that it would prompt the city to take the homes of poor and disenfranchised residents, gentrify the community, and would result in a property grab for developers.
Since HB 458 was “walked” out of committee, the public did not have the opportunity to voice their concerns or their support for the bill. As a result, the Wilmington City Council held an eminent domain information event at the Wilmington Police Athletic League Center on Wednesday night.
Zanthia Oliver, 3rd District Wilmington City Council member, hosted the event, which was attended by over 100 guests, including city council members, residents and Rep. Chukwuocha.
Tensions quickly rose while Rep. Chukwuocha attempted to clarify the function of the bill as members of the public shouted over his explanation. Despite interruptions, he provided examples of the effects that vacant and abandoned homes can have, including two abandoned homes near Tabernacle Full Gospel Baptist Church.
Rep. Chukwuocha said that in about 2017, two homeless people died after entering the homes to seek warmth. The homes were later acquired by the city through eminent domain, according to Rep. Chukwuocha, who said that the area has since remained open because the homes were knocked down for the good of public use. The bill would also address the presence of crime in vacant and abandoned homes, which can be havens for prostitution and drug use, he said.
Wilmington City Council members reiterated that the legislation was being rushed and that since the introduction of the bill on June 7, no community meetings about the bill were held. However, Rep. Chukwuocha was adamant that his caucus had been discussing a meeting with community leadership, and the mayor and his administration since February.
Community members called for the bill to be tabled, even erupting into calls for Rep. Chukwuocha to “pull that bill,” though he made no commitment other than to discuss the matter during party caucus the following day.
Despite continuous interruptions, Rep. Chukwuocha denied that the legislation was done in secret and remained firm on his interpretation of the function of the legislation.
“This is about our communities. If city council chooses not to implement this bill, that’s fine, but what this bill is about is about giving them the opportunity to say, ‘We’re going to do something about these long-standing vacants,’” Rep. Chukwuocha said. “That’s all this is about. We’re not trying to take anybody’s home.”