Explainer: What is eminent domain? How is it working in Sharswood?

Eminent domain is a legal term that refers to the ability of certain public agencies to seize privately-held property under certain circumstances. This power is briefly detailed in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that takings are allowable only when they contribute to a “public use” and the affected property owner receives “just compensation.” The legal process for that taking is called “condemnation.”

These powers are commonly invoked for government projects, in order to, say, aid in the assembly of parkland or clear a path for transportation infrastructure like highways or train lines. Since the 1950s, courts have ruled that governments can also exercise eminent domain to raze “blighted structures.” All of the above caveats have historically been open to different legal interpretations, often controversially.

For its Sharswood project, PHA has argued that taking private land is justifiable because the land is “blighted” and the affordable housing it will create on that land will constitute a public benefit. In Philadelphia, the local legislature must approve eminent domain actions and, in June of last year, City Council voted to authorize PHA’s condemnation of 1,330 properties in the project area. PHA selected the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, a state agency with local eminent domain powers, to legally acquire the properties on its behalf.

The agency is then required to publicly notify property owners that their property is being condemned, through a letter or a posted notice on site. Appraisers were dispatched to determine the “fair market value” of each property, a figure that in turn becomes the “just compensation” each landowner is entitled to either as a payout or by being relocated to a new home of similar size and value, assuming there are no outstanding liens on the property. Tenants of more than three months are entitled to relocation assistance and up to 42-months of rental assistance towards their new lease.

These appraisals can be contentious, and some residents have contested PHA’s appraised property values, saying they are artificially low. While it is very difficult to legally dispute PHA’s right to exercise eminent domain, many property owners have exercised their legal right to argue for more adequate compensation in court.

Vacancy and publicly owned property in Sharswood

Parcels in green are vacant properties. Parcels in light purple are already in public ownership. Parcels in dark purple are properties PHA is acquiring through eminent domain.

DATA SOURCES: City of Philadelphia, City council bill 150409 | CREDIT: Preston Hull + Ashley Hahn


Publicly owned property in Sharswood before Eminent Domain and After Eminent Domain

Slide bar left and right to see before and after

Parcels in light pink are properties that were publicly owned by agencies like Philadelphia Housing Authority, Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, Philadelpiha Parks and Recreation.
Parcels in purple are properties PHA is acquiring through eminent domain.


DATA SOURCES: City of Philadelphia, City council bill 150409 | CREDIT: Preston Hull + Ashley Hahn

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal