Seizing Private Property in the Trump Era

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Donald Trump boasted of his love for eminent domain during the 2016 presidential campaign, calling it an “absolute necessity.” And the billionaire real estate developer has a long record of pushing government redevelopment agencies to seize private property to make way for his projects.

Little Pink House, a new feature film written and directed by Courtney Balaker, looks at eminent domain abuse by recounting the true story behind of an epic 2005 Supreme Court case. Though Trump is no longer directly managing his real estate business, given his authoritarian tendencies, the story depicted in the film is more relevant than ever. (Little Pink House, which stars Academy Award nominated actress Catherine Keener, was produced by Balaker’s husband and creative partner, Ted, who is also a former Reason TV producer.)

Eminent domain is when the government forces the sale of private property to make way for a so-called public use. That could mean a highway, a school—or in the case of Kelo v. the City of New London, a pharmaceutical plant

In 2000, Susette Kelo was a registered nurse who had just moved into a small, pink house in a middle-class area of New London, Connecticut. Seven months later, the city announced plans to turn her Fort Trumbull neighborhood into new research facilities for the Pfizer corporation. She was told she’d need to find a new place to live.

City officials and a nonprofit economic development group claimed the new facility would bring business and jobs to the area. Kelo didn’t want to sell, so the city moved to take her house by force. She joined with six other residents and sued the city on the grounds that New London’s use of eminent domain was unconstitutional. The case made it to all the way to the Supreme Court. Though the city prevailed, the decision led to a public backlash, causing many states to pass new laws limiting the use of eminent domain.

When working on the script for Little Pink House, Balaker says she was inspired by Kelo’s courage and humility—which Catherine Keener perfectly captured in the film. “What resonated with [Keener] was this concept of your spot,” says Balaker. “When you find your place and you can really root yourself into that place and how disruptive that is to somebody to uproot you against your will.”

“Apart from putting you in jail or killing you, to take away your home or your livelihood is about the most serious thing that a government can do,” says Scott Bullock with the Institute for Justice, who was Kelo’s lawyer all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Actress Jean Tripplehorn plays Charlotte Wells, who in the movie spearheads the initiative to forcibly take Kelo’s home to build a pharmaceutical plant. Wells gives voice to all of the typical rationales for seizing private property: Creating jobs, economic revitalization, and restoring a sense of grandeur to a fallen industrial town. But don’t look for any mustache twirling villains here. “Jean, had a great way of describing it—this is a very misguided woman,” says Balaker. “Someone who was on the right path but then went down the very, very, wrong path to get what she wanted.”

Pfizer’s facility was never built in Fort Trumbull. After the city seized and bulldozed many of the homes in the area, the company walked away from the venture. Today, the site of the proposed project is a wasteland.

Balaker’s film opened the Athena Film Festival this year and was screened at the Vail Film Festival where it picked up the audience award.

Produced by Paul Detrick. Shot by Alexis Garcia and Alex Manning.

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