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The Myth Of American Land Ownership In America


By James Donahue

September 2005


Joseph Farah, author of This Land Is Our Land, recently lamented the Supreme Court’s controversial eminent domain ruling that gives city councils and township boards the power to seize private property for the good of the community.


The article he wrote was titled This Land Was Our Land. In it, Farah said he believes that one of the most cherished freedoms in America, the right to own property, has now been stolen. He said any private developer interested in using prime residential property for a new subdivision or apartment complex can now buy his way into acquiring that land through his or her ability to persuade a majority of the government board to agree.


Indeed, the eminent domain ruling was a powerful blow against property owners in America. But the myth of property ownership has been a myth for many years. It was something we believed even though we have all known, if only subconsciously, that land ownership is no more than a piece of paper. It can be destroyed as quickly as that paper can perish at the strike of a match. Now this paper has become more torn and wrinkled than ever.


My wife and I have been on both sides of the coin. We have owned a lot of property and sold it. We also have been without the ownership of land and been forced to rent a place to call home.


Rental had its advantages. When in an apartment complex there was no maintenance of the building or lawn to mow. The cost of living there was established with a certain amount paid each month for rent and utilities.


The disadvantages, however, usually outweighed the good things. We were often living at the mercy of the landlord. When our children were down on their luck and needed to come home to live for a while, there was a problem with extra bodies in the home that broke the rules. We rarely could rent a place that allowed for pets. There was no place to keep a garden, or personal tools, or a second car. And forget thoughts of remodeling the rooms or repairing a broken door hinge. We called the owner.


Home ownership (or mortgaging) simply meant you made your monthly payments to the bank instead of the landlord. Most of this money went into interest and a small amount dribbled into principle, thus giving you the sensation of actually paying off the massive debt acquired for the purchase of a house and piece of property. Get laid off from the job or have an abrupt change in your earning abilities, and fail to make that monthly payment, the bank suddenly moves to foreclose. When you are broke, banks can be brutal and sometimes even more cold-hearted than landlords.


Home ownership also involves a yearly property tax payment. This tax is usually based on the actual cash value of the property. To determine this, communities hire property assessors, professional people who go around appraising homes and lands for their estimated cash value. The means of doing this includes looking at the amount other homes in a neighborhood are sold for during the previous calendar year.


If a homeowner fails to pay that tax, the government has the right to seize the property and put it up for something called a “tax sale.” During a tax sale, an advertisement is posted in the classified pages of a local newspaper. Then on a specific day, a county deputy sits in the courthouse to receive any bids. If someone comes forth to pay the tax debt on a piece of property, they can literally buy the land. The catch is that the homeowner still has another year to pay up before losing the property altogether.


The tax formula can sometimes bring unfair taxes against property. My parents, for example, bought a farm just after World War II for somewhere around $8,000. They upgraded and modernized the house, maintained the buildings, and farmed the land. The estimated cash value of the farm rose with adjoining land values. At about the time my father retired from his job a local electric company decided it wanted to build a new power plant in the area and sent an agent in the area to buy up a large block of land. To get it, the company paid much more than the land was worth. The property acquired did not include the family farm, but came within a half mile of it. This caused the value of all of the area lands to skyrocket. The tax bills to all of the area farms more than doubled overnight. My parents sold their retirement home and moved off the family farm and into a retirement building. The property was split up and sold as lots for new homes because nobody could afford to maintain it as a farm.


Now that local municipalities have the power to also seize land, the homeowner has even that much less control over his or her land.


It once was that when we owned a piece of property we had the freedom to use it for anything we wished. That is no longer true.


Local building and zoning codes restrict the use of the land. If you buy property in a residential zone, you can only build a house on it. You are not allowed to keep farm animals, or park an unused car in the back yard, or put a business there. You are not permitted to pound a nail in a wall or build a new front porch without going to the municipal building department and paying for a permit. If the project does not comply with local building and zoning codes, you will not be given this permit.


The plumbing in a country home used to carry the sludge off into a septic tank that then emptied out in a field. This is still allowed if your land is sandy and “percolates.” If you happen to buy on hard clay soil, you may not be given the privilege of building a septic system. Instead, you must have a holding tank and hire a company to empty your sewage and carry it away regularly.


Then there are the storms. People living in homes along the Gulf Coast discovered that normal homeowner insurance wasn’t enough to cover their losses when they were hit by Hurricane Katrina. Home owners all over the country are having their homes totally destroyed by the rash of powerful storms packing hurricane-force winds, and also tornadoes. Flooding is also becoming a major problem as weather patterns change. To recoup their losses, insurance companies are increasing the cost of home insurance. Many people are finding that they can no longer afford to pay.


Writer Farah is correct when he laments that this land WAS our land. It no longer is OUR land. Instead it is owned by banks and big business interests. We people are allowed to occupy it for brief times as long as we can produce enough money to make monthly payments. Once the money stops flowing, we join the growing ranks of the homeless.

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