Of Domes and Homes
I’m very happy to be back adding my two cents to Concurring Opinions. Thanks very much, Dan, for the invite, and Sarah, for the introduction.
I was watching the NFL Vikings carve up the Bears yesterday, trying to decide what to post about first, and my eyes were drawn not to quarterback Brett Favre, running back Adrian Petersen . . . or even the freak who dresses like a viking and leads cheers inside the Metrodome, the Vikings’ domed stadium. I kept looking at the shots of the stadium itself, and thinking about two recent court orders.
One was issued last Monday, lifting an injunction on the previous week’s sale by auction of the 94,000 square foot, 80,300 seat Pontiac Silverdome, along with an adjacent fieldhouse and 127 acres of land. There were four bids. The winning bid? $583,000. Total. After auction fees, the current owner — the City of Pontiac, Michigan — will net about $430,000. When professional sports tenants such as the Detroit Lions left, a property that cost $56 million to build was rendered practically worthless. In fact, Pontiac was prepared to accept any bid for the property, since maintaining it was costing the City $1.5 million per year.
The other order was issued in September by Judge Berrigan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Eastern Louisiana, ordering St. Bernard Parish not to interfere with the construction of a mixed market-rate and low income housing project. The Parish, faced with an influx of low income tenants, had refused to issue building permits for the project, imposed a moratorium on building apartment complexes, and passed an ordinance making it illegal to rent to anyone other than a blood relative without special permission. The New Orleans area faces an extreme shortage of low income housing, despite the population diaspora from the area generally. Most of the housing destroyed by Katrina was low income.
There’s a lot to ponder about the Silverdome sale: That there were three lower bids. That the winning bid was less than the minimum salary for two NFL rookies. That economically, everything Michigan touches seems to dissolve.
There’s also a lot to ponder about the Louisiana case: The race and class issues implicit in the development of low income housing. The institutional role of courts as a check on the popular will. The possibility that some of those in need of that housing once spent time sheltering in a hellish environment inside yet another domed stadium.
But as a law professor who teaches property, I was also struck by was the extraordinary difference in power between commercial and residential tenants. In Pontiac, the lack of willing commercial tenants for the Silverdome reduced the value of the property to a nominal amount. In St. Bernard Parish, despite an abundance of ready and willing residential tenants, a court order was required to get a what should be a profitable property developed. This week I’m teaching my students about the gradual importation of contract law concepts into the law of leasehold estates. I tell them that those contract law doctrines tend to protect residential tenants, recognizing what is often unequal bargaing power between residential tenants and lessors. They are less protective of commercial tenants, because commercial tenants often have as much bargaining power as lessors.
Watching the Vikings on Sunday, oddly enough, brought that lesson home.