Northeastern Illinois University, or NEIU, has moved to seize land from businesses and families in the Chicago neighborhood of North Park as part of its bid to construct new student dormitories – even though the university already owns plenty of land it could use without seizing anything.
NEIU has filed a lawsuit to forcibly acquire several small businesses and homes, including a Chinese restaurant, dentist’s office, hair salon and more. The university would then use the land to construct two multi-use dorms on Bryn Mawr Avenue that would house as many as 500 students. All of this is part of a plan to revitalize the commuter school, which, as outlined by NEIU President Sharon Hahs, has been struggling with “revenue shortfalls from enrollment declines.” The administration is betting that if it builds more housing, their school will attract more students.
But the university wouldn’t have to take land to build new dorms. In fact, the school operates on 67 acres of land, much of which is underdeveloped.
Community members argue the land grab has progressed way too quickly and violates their property rights. Late last year, NEIU solicited proposals for the university housing and retail development, but only started reaching out to local property owners in January. By May, the university had sent out offer letters to buy the property backed by the threat of eminent domain, and followed up with a lawsuit in August.
The threat of eminent domain is an increasingly profitable strategy employed by public and private universities. It strong-arms local property owners into settling, thereby avoiding a drawn-out, expensive legal battle they would risk losing.
Under eminent-domain law, a unit of government can take private property so long as it’s for “public use” and if it offers the owner “just compensation.” Because NEIU is a public university, a court may consider any land NEIU wants to take as a “public use.” This usually applies to projects with at least an arguable public benefit – the construction of highways or EL stations, for example. But dorms don’t benefit the public generally. Rather, they serve NEIU’s administration and some of its students – and no one else.
“Public use” should have a more rigorous definition than merely “something a public body wants,” especially when the project in question would destroy small businesses for a risky gamble on student enrollment.
And although eminent domain would ostensibly be exercised for the benefit of a public university, private developers stand to gain from the move as well. American Campus Communities, the largest student housing developer in the country, has been awarded a contract to construct the new space.
The right to private property is too important to be sacrificed at the whim of a public university that already owns plenty of land. This development is not only a highly questionable public policy decision, but an illegitimate exercise of government authority.But the affected businesses are fighting back. They’ve organized as the NEIU Neighbors Coalition to shed light on the university’s abuse of eminent domain and have been earning significant media attention. If you support their efforts, you can sign a petition telling NEIU administrators and local alderman Margaret Laurino to kill the land grab and respect the property rights of their neighbors.