Inspired in part by the work of Cornell law professor Robert Hockett, the city of Richmond, Calif. is planning to 1) use eminent domain to seize private mortgages for considerably less than their actual worth; 2) cut a deal with existing residents of the homes to install FHA mortgages in place of the seized mortgages; 3) use the windfall surplus — derived by paying the private mortgage holders less than the actual value of their forcibly seized holdings — to subsidize the local residents, thus buying their political favor, as well as leaving a goodly sum to pay off the private outfit called Mortgage Resolution Partners that’s pushing the scheme (written up sympathetically in a recent New York Times account).
What could go wrong, aside from to the spirit of the Constitution and the rule of law? Gideon Kanner points out that even California eminent domain law still requires the payment of “fair market value, not some bargain basement figure pulled out of thin air”:
…we believe that not even California courts will stand still for that. Why not? Because under our law, if the condemnor tries to lowball too much, and makes an unreasonable pre-trial offer, it may have to pay the condemnees’ attorneys’ and appraiser’s fees, plus other litigation expenses, on top of the “just compensation” required by the constitutions. And, of course, any diminution in value brought about by the the market’s reaction to the imminence of the condemnation, cannot be considered in determining fair market value. The property has to be valued as if unaffected by the condemnor’s plans or by any preliminary steps taken toward the condemnation. Cal. Code Civ. Proc. Sec. 1263.330.
For other reasons the scheme may prove much more expensive to the city of Richmond and its taxpayers, see Ilya Somin [more, yet more] Other commentary: Matt Welch, Richard Epstein. Earlier here, here, etc.