Property is a fundamental right that is now being threatened

Property is a fundamental right that is now being threatened
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On March 25, more than one thousand foreign government dignitaries, aid workers, academics and activists will gather in Washington, D.C., for the World Bank’s 20th annual Land and Poverty Conference. This conference shines a spotlight on a fundamental global development challenge: the fact that an estimated 2 billion people around the world have insecure land and property rights.

And yet, the conference misses what is happening in its own backyard.  

From Trump’s wall in Texas and civil asset forfeiture in Indiana, to the fight over public lands in Utah and post-hurricane housing in Puerto Rico, millions of Americans are facing new and unprecedented property rights threats. Recent actions by the Trump administration have worsened the situation, to the consternation of both Democrats and Republicans.


The right to property is in our country’s bedrock. It’s celebrated in our earliest folk songs — "this land is your land, this land is my land" — and most of us take it for granted. We believe our rights to our house, our car, our land and our cash are ironclad.

But that belief is a fallacy, particularly as of late.  In the course of the Trump administration, property rights fights have flared in four very different ways.   

In Utah, the federal government shrunk public land and national monuments by 85 percent in 2017, inciting anger from indigenous groups, activists and outdoor apparel companies. After two years of pressure the government reversed course last month and passed a public lands protection package.

Along the southern border, President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump, Jared Kusher's lawyer threatens to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards Facebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' MORE is threatening to take the land for thousands of Americans to build a wall. He’s being sued on property rights by litigants that include a historic chapel and a butterfly sanctuary.

In Puerto Rico, 60 percent of post-Maria FEMA aid claims were rejected primarily because applicants could not prove they owned their homes. That’s because, as it turns out, more than half the island’s properties were built informally.

And along the nation’s highways, police are seizing billions of dollars in private property from people suspected of crimes through a controversial practice known as civil asset forfeiture. Just last month, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously to limit police power to seize private property, striking the first blow in what may be a long fight.  

So why are property rights suddenly emerging as an issue in a country that wrote its property laws 300 years ago and where all privately owned property is supposedly titled?

For one, contrary to popular belief, property rights have never been fully documented and secure in our country. A Princeton case study published last year revealed that thousands of families along the Gulf Coast couldn’t access FEMA aid after Hurricane Katrina because their homes were informally owned. These families lived on land passed down to them informally by parents and grandparents and only learned that they lacked clear formal title to their properties when they tried to apply for disaster assistance to rebuild their homes after the storm.

Additionally, the changing economy, changing politics and changing climate are conspiring to put new pressures on property rights in the United States. In an “America first” world, pressure to rely on domestic natural resources is driving us to exploit previously untouched lands. Politicians are fighting with environmentalists to open up public lands like Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to mining and drilling. Along the coasts, sea level rise is threatening to relocate millions of Americans inland, in turn driving up property values and land pressures.

Given global and domestic trends, property rights will continue to grow as an issue of concern (something my team at New America will be talking about at an event on March 25). Luckily, it’s a rare subject both sides of the aisle can agree on, at least in principle.

For liberals, property rights is a question of human rights and human decency: every human is entitled to a secure roof over their head and a plot of land to make a living on. For conservatives, private property is a philosophical bedrock and the cornerstone of both freedom and economic growth. So when land and property rights come under threat, they make for strange bedfellows of human rights loving liberals and private property loving conservatives.

Several Republican members of congress, most prominently Justin AmashJustin AmashEnergized by polls, House Democrats push deeper into GOP territory Ocasio-Cortez draws hundreds of thousands of viewers on Twitch livestream Hillicon Valley: House votes to condemn QAnon | Americans worried about foreign election interference | DHS confirms request to tap protester phones MORE and Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdTrump predicts GOP will win the House Changing suburbs threaten GOP hold on Texas Bottom line MORE, have joined Democrats in coming out against the border wall on property rights grounds. The Supreme Court’s vote in the Timbs v. Indiana civil asset forfeiture case was a rare 9-0 unanimous ruling. And, last month’s bill expanding public lands passed the senate with a sweeping 92-8 vote.

For Americans, property is a fundamental right that is coming under threat in new and unexpected ways, one we should keep an eye on as election season heats up. And for politicians wading into the fray, property rights presents a rare point of agreement across the aisle.

Yuliya Panfil is a senior fellow and director of New America's Future of Property Rights program. Previously, she worked at Omidyar Network, USAID and as a journalist.