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“Communist China” enacts law to strengthen private property while Minnesota legislators move in the opposite direction

By a vote of 2,826 to 37, members of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, China, passed a law which gave owners of private property the same legal protection as property owned by the government. Besides private businesses, this law passed on March 16, 2007, also protected the property rights of homeowners and of farmers. Collusion between developers and government officials to acquire farmers’ land without fair compensation has been a major human-rights issue in China, sparking many protests.

Property rights are a basic human right recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which the United Nations adopted in 1948. A committee headed by Eleanor Roosevelt drafted this document. Article 17 reads:

“(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.”

Protection of private property is firmly established within English and American jurisprudence. It is closely associated with other liberties guaranteed within a democratic society. In China, on the other hand, private-property rights are traditionally considered antithetical to the communist order. The Communist Party is literally translated “the public-property party”. A small number of scholars and retired government officials who held to the old values had opposed the legal change.

The Chinese government was acknowledging the fact that the private sector now accounts for 65 per cent of China’s GNP. Private parties own 80 percent of the housing in urban areas. The dynamism of the private sector contrasts with the stagnating public sector. Workers continue to be laid off from jobs in state-owned enterprises. Small farmers have been under pressure to relinquish their land for development projects promoted by corrupt government officials. It was therefore a step forward for human rights, clean government, and the rule of law that the People’s Congress recognized property rights as a fundamental right of the Chinese people.

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State and local governments in Minnesota seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Elected officials both in Minneapolis and St. Paul, among other places, have developed the new concept of a “problem property” to justify arbitrary and often illegal moves against property owners in crime-ridden neighborhoods. The idea, basically, is that neglected properties are a root cause of crime. The way to end drug dealing, for instance, is to condemn buildings where drug activity has taken place. Neighborhood groups and block clubs favor this approach, not recognizing or caring that the criminals subsequently go elsewhere and continue their unlawful activities after being evicted from a particular place.

In a mature economy such as that of the United States, there is also an attitude that possession of property is inherently wrong. Capitalists, even small ones, must have taken advantage of poor working people to acquire the property that they have. And so it is politically popular to punish the “negligent” or “uncaring” landlords who have “brought” crime into the neighborhood by their failure to screen apartment applicants properly. In certain situations, politicians are also unwilling to focus upon the particular individuals committing crimes because of negative implications relating to racial politics. Property owners, especially landlords, have, however, been negatively stereotyped for such a long time that they are a safe candidate for political vilification.

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The city of Minneapolis has established a “Problem Properties Unit” consisting of a team of bureaucrats from the police and inspections department and the City Attorney’s office which puts its wits together to apply maximum legal pressure upon a small number of the city’s landlords thought to be most negligent in maintaining and policing their properties. The goal is to drive the “worst” landlords out of business so neighborhoods will improve. This city department has a staff employee who is also a member of the Minnesota state senate. Since Minneapolis basically has a one-party system of government, she has been in office for a long time.

This legislator has introduced a bill, S.F. 308, in the current legislative session which is described as “relating to housing; creating a blighted housing rehabilitation program; (and) providing for transfer of possession or ownership of nuisance properties to nonprofit housing organizations” (without said organizations having to pay for the properties).

Any nonprofit housing corporation (which specifically includes organizations operated primarily for religious purposes) may petition the court to take “temporary possession of any house in the state which (1) has been vacant for a year or more and (2) has been the scene of illegal activity, especially related to drugs or gangs, if (3) the nonprofit organization “intends to rehabilitate the property and use the property as housing for low- and moderate-income persons” and (4) has given the property owner proper notice that such action will be initiated in court.

The acquiring organization need not have any previous or consensual relationship with the property owner. It need not pay any money to acquire the property. All that is required is that the takeover of property be done through the court system in accordance with the provisions of this law.

Technically, the acquiring organization is not acquiring an ownership interest in the property, only the right to manage it. But the right to manage assumes the right of access to the previous owner’s checkbook. It assumes the right to decide who will be hired and what contracts will be made with whom, with the previous owner assuming ultimate financial responsibility for whatever the acquiring organization decides to do.

The law states specifically: “An owner is entitled to regain possession of the property by petitioning to the court for restoration of possession and, upon due notice to the organization, for a hearing on the petition. At the hearing, the court shall determine property compensation to the organization for its expenditures, including management fees, based on the organization’s reports to the court. The court, in determining the property compensation to the organization, may consider income or receipts received from the property, and the increase in the market value of the property resulting from the rehabilitation by the organization. In no event shall the amount paid be less than the amount spent by the organization plus management fees and interest. After the owner pays the compensation to the organization as determined by the court, the owner shall resume possession of the property, subject to all existing rental agreements, whether written or verbal, entered into by the organization.”

On the other hand: “if an owner takes no action to regain possession of the property in the six months following entry of an order granting temporary possession of the property to the organization, the organization may file a petition for an order transferring ownership of the property to the organization ... The organization may sell the property to low- or moderate-income home buyers.”

Some believe that this legislation is proposed at the behest of an attorney who has set up a nonprofit housing corporation for the purpose of taking over the management of privately owned buildings in accordance with this law. He is believed to be the same attorney who once specialized in selling his services to Somali immigrants and engaged in various controversial actions in the process of soliciting business. (See letter to Somalis.) He may also have been the same person who, when R.T. Rybak first ran for mayor, complained in an email discussion that the future mayor was associating with members of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, whose leadership “is made up or controlled by some of the worst landlords in the city, those that take advantage of the affordable housing crisis by profiting from high rents while not maintaining their properties properly.”

In any event, the proposed legislation would seem to conflict with a provision of the Minnesota Constitution which reads: “Private property shall not be taken, destroyed or damaged for public use without just compensation therefor, first paid or secured.” (Article 1, section 13) The fact that this provision is included in the “Bill of Rights” section of this document identifies it as a matter of human-rights protection.

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A second example of the Minnesota legislature being asked to move away from protection of property rights is a bill, H.F. 49, introduced by a legislator whose day job is with the St. Paul City Attorney’s office. It is titled “public nuisance/ criminal gang activity”.

A public nuisance is defined, in section 2, as “a criminal gang that engages in gang activity at least five times over the course of a 12-month period, and the habitual use of a particular place that is used for gang activities.”

Section 3 “permits a county or city attorney, the attorney general, or any Minnesota resident to seek an injunction against the continued nuisance activity. The suit may be brought against the gang members, and against any person who owns or is responsible for maintaining a particular place that is habitually used to create a public nuisance.”

Section 4 states that “a court may issue a temporary or permanent injunction preventing the particular defendants from engaging in the gang activity, and imposing other reasonable requirements to prevent the entire gang from engaging in future gang activities, so long as the requirements do not violate the First Amendment right of association...”

Section 5 states that “an individual violating a court order issued under section 4 of the bill is subject to a fine (ranging between $1,000 and $10,000), jail time (ranging between and 30 days), or both.”

Section 6 “permits the court to award attorney’s fees to a prevailing party for suits brought under section 3 of the bill.”

Section 7, pertaining to “evidence”, states: “Proof that criminal gang activity frequently occurs at a particular place creates a presumption that the owner or person responsible for maintaining the particular place knowingly allowed the activity to occur.” In other words, this bill legislates a certain determination of facts even if they are untrue.

A couple points should be made. First, there is no definition as to what constitutes a “criminal gang” or “gang activity”. From Section 4, it would appear that the author of this bill realizes that “gang activity” occurs whenever two or more members of a criminal gang meet. They need not have done anything illegal at those meetings.

Second, the rental property owner is supposed to know whenever two or more alleged gang members meet at his or her property. The city police are not obliged to tell the property owner that someone belongs to a gang. The property owner is supposed to know it and therefore to have “allowed” the gang activity - i.e., the meeting - to have taken place.

The property owner is thus made criminally liable for conducting surveillance of a type and degree that, had the government done it, would have been clearly illegal. Given the current state of local government in Minnesota, it is not surprising that an employee of the St. Paul city attorney’s office would try to shift this burden of excessive, uncompensated policing to the owners of private property.

Both bills, S.F. 308 and H.F. 49, are signs of serious corruption in the process of governing. The Chinese government, in contrast, comes across as reform-minded.


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