Thursday, November 6, 2008

US Homestead Act of 1862: Instigator of Modern-day Gentrification?

By: Sherry Rashad

After almost two centuries of carving up the North American continent into bastions of private mini-kingdoms in the name of Manifest Destiny, it just makes me wonder if then US president Abraham Lincoln ever foresee the “political monster” that he unleashed by enacting the US Homestead Act back in 1862. Especially since it evolved - by aid of successive Capitol Hill lobbyists – into a law that allows the Federal Government during the post 9 / 11 Bush Administration to confiscate privately owned lands not fully utilized to its economic viability in the name of Eminent Domain.

On another facet of the issue, I do admire Abraham Lincoln’s idea of giving American and newly Americanized citizens a fair shot of developing those pre-partitioned - via the 1862 Homestead Act - undeveloped lands outside of the original 13 colonies to be claimed as their own. Given that most European Immigrants back then probably experienced the injustice end of gentrification for centuries. Even their grandparents have tales of experiencing first-hand textbook gentrification via landed gentry on horseback. Giving the new Americans a chance to own their own parcel of land in the “Land of Opportunity” may have been too good an offer to resist – or even contemplate the long-term negative side-effects of such an act.

But the US Homestead Act of 1862 did undergo several revisions as the years go by. Usually the studies conducted by environmentalists and other Federal Government tenured academics and their findings were the primary reasons for the various revisions. Sadly, the same data from the study is also used by corporate industrialists as their raison d’ĂȘtre for claims of the bigger share of the partitioned land since they can make the land create more money than by simple farming.

As Capitol Hill lobbyists became the primary driving force of transforming the US Homestead Act into its present incarnation, the term ownership in conjunction with land ownership has become increasingly confused with the terms “holdings” and “interests”. This is primarily due to the manner in which various rights to the land are distributed. Thus making it possible for a number of different parties to have claims on the same parcel of land – e.g. one may be the titleholder or “owner”. Another the lessee; another the “owner” in terms of timber rights only; another the “owner” of the right to drill for crude oil; etc.

In practice though, dispute resolution mechanisms for torts related to the private ownership aspect of the 1862 Homestead Act has eloquently maintained an impression of equitability for most parties involved. Making lawyers and their law firms gainfully employed while making private landowners / titleholders cherish the belief of the idealism behind that Woody Guthrie song "This Land is Your Land”. Whether you view it as an illogical delusion or an equitable legal compromise, the self-correcting mechanism behind the constantly evolving nature of legal precedents that shaped the US Homestead Act of 1862 into it’s current incarnation will always tend to favor private property style ownership over fair use.