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An argument for community rights over property rights

By Barbara Trent

Whatever sympathies toward the protesters who occupied the abandoned Yates Motor Co. building or feelings about the heavy-handed response by the police one might have, the incident raises some serious issues as to whether property owners have a responsibility to see that their properties are used for the betterment of the local community. I am encouraged by the comments of Carrboro Board of Aldermen members Dan Coleman and Sammy Slade and Occupy supporter Geoff Gilson regarding these issues. We need to find civil solutions. In Central America, Nicaragua faced and resolved a similar issue 30 years ago.

David Kasper and I went to Nicaragua in 1983 to shoot our first documentary feature, Destination Nicaragua. What we found then reminds me of Chapel Hill’s plight with the Yates building.

By the time dictator Anastasio Samosa was run out of Nicaragua in 1979, his family personally owned about one third of the land in the country. His rich friends pretty much owned the rest.

At that time the new government was dealing with situations not so different than the ever-empty Yates building. When Samosa fell in Nicaragua, he and his cronies looted everything they could, moved to Miami and left behind only what they couldn’t move, namely the land and empty buildings. Their intention was to keep their properties vacant so that they could not be used to serve the community under a new government that they opposed.

Nicaragua countered this strategy by passing laws requiring farmland be farmed, houses be lived in and factories be in operation in order for the owner to retain ownership. If after several years those requirements were not fulfilled, the owners lost all rights to the property and it was used for the betterment of the population. Farmland was deeded to large cooperatives of people to farm, and buildings were turned into clinics, museums, schools, libraries and homes. Those properties served the people who lived in Nicaragua. This process does not seem so different from our eminent domain laws.

In the 1980s Nicaragua was experimenting with a mixed economy where private and public ownership of property and services was established with the aim of guaranteeing basic rights, services and opportunities for everyone while still promoting and rewarding private enterprise. Unfortunately, for 10 years the U.S. ran an illegal covert war against Nicaragua that sabotaged economic assets and terrorized innocent civilians, killing thousands, so we don’t know how these economic experiments might have played out.

When I look at that empty Yates building in the heart of downtown and hear about all of the empty foreclosed homes across the country, I can’t help but wonder if we too need to find new strategies so that no one is allowed to plunder and abandon our communities. At the very least, abandoned buildings should be taxed at a much higher rate than occupied and functioning buildings. Abandoned buildings require more police protection. They are fire hazards. They attract predator-related crime. But mostly, they are robbing this community of it’s potential. We must have policies that penalize the practice of leaving buildings abandoned, and encourage the appropriate uses that will benefit our communities.

Barbara Trent is an Oscar-winning filmmaker and seasoned activist.

2 Responses

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  1. Tamara Matheson

    Thanks for writing this, Barbara. It’s nice to hear someone talking about the greater, central issues at hand in our society and how these building occupations relate to that instead of getting distracted by the back and forth between the mayor and occupiers.

  2. Fred Black

    Ms. Trent, what is your definition of an “abandoned” building compared to one that is vacant? Surely, there are problems for communities when there are vacant buildings but if the owner(s) perform the proper maintenance and pay their taxes, those buildings are very different from an abandoned one, at least to me.