By: Luis Gallardo Rivera
The Special Communities Program, enacted in 2001 by former governor Sila Calderón, was an aggressive initiative that sought to empower hundreds of communities throughout Puerto Rico. Though the program has been mired by government inefficiencies and bureaucracy, it has led to the construction of countless community centers, low income housing units, and other community facilities. With the injection of $1 billion during the Calderón administration and another $400 million during Governor Alejandro García Padilla’s term, the program, without a doubt, has left its mark on Puerto Rico’s low-income communities. Most importantly, the more than seven hundred “Special Communities” have a built-in protection against eminent domain takings, thus preventing Puerto Rico’s seventy-eight mayors from expropriating their land. Unfortunately, the Special Communities Act may very well be near its demise due to a recent court ruling in favor of one power-hungry mayor.
Upon its approval the Act was met with much fervor and applause, receiving the endorsement of Guaynabo Mayor Héctor O’Neill, the powerful and influential President of the Federation of Mayors. Nevertheless, when the Act was amended in 2004 to increase protections for said communities against expropriation, O’Neill immediately began looking for ways to avoid said provisions. It was then that he began cooking up a half-ass case in an attempt to declare the Act and Program null.
The Municipality of Guaynabo was, until this point, displacing and bulldozing low-income communities in order to build upper-class condominiums. Using the city as a real estate agent for private developers in turn increased tax revenue and made the Municipality easier to market as a suburbian Florida-type resort. Not only was the municipality renamed from the Spanish “Municipio de Guaynabo” to the English “Guaynabo City”, but “PARE” signs were replaced with “STOP” signs and the “policía municipal” was re-baptized as the “Guaynabo City Police Department”. This would seem out of place for an island where only 5% of the population speaks English at home.
For O’Neill, the low-income communities of Guaynabo would be better off flatted and hurdled into low income walkups. It was the city’s public policy to convert the Municipality into a collection of gated suburbs and private condominiums. It was by fragmenting society, and sticking each community behind a wall, that would lead to the low crime, high-quality utopia that O’Neill sought for his constituents. The city government, for example, assists neighborhoods in mounting access controls and pumps a significant amount of funding into flamboyant suburb entrances, roundabouts and gates.
Even after the approval of the anti-taking amendment, O’Neill continued to expropriate low-income communities in clear violation of the Act. O’Neill would bulldoze home after home, at time leaving occupants mired by complex local inheritance laws with no compensation and no roof over their heads. The City would demolish buildings and leave the rubble on site, in turn creating an unpleasant, polluted environment. When confronted by allegations that he was purposely neglecting the community in order to pressure citizens to abandon their homes, O’Neill stated that he has been leaving behind the rubble in order to allow penny-pinchers a chance to salvage the leftover metals. The illegal takings were stopped in December 2014, when a San Juan judge ordered the city to cease all takings unless within the guidelines of the Special Communities Act.
In 2007, six years after the law was enacted, O’Neill filed a shabby lawsuit against the State government claiming that the procedures used to designate the Special Communities in his city were faulty. Guaynabo easily initially lost the case, with its baseless arguments and lack of evidence. Nevertheless, when newly inaugurated and O’Neill-ally Governor Luis Fortuño’s turned around the State’s stance on the matter, the case was reopened and things were complicated for the Special Communities. With a state Supreme Court packed with partisan allies, including a former Supreme Court justice as the city’s attorney, and a case judge who sits on the board of O’Neill’s recently inaugurated Transportation Museum, sound arguments were secondary to political and big business interests.
This past weekend, eight years into the trial, the First Instance Court of San Juan dropped an atomic bomb in the form of a court sentence, ruling against Guaynabo’s Special Communities. The sentence strips said communities of their special community title and leave them without any protection against the Mayor’s wave of takings. Community leaders were left in shock as they read through page after page of the court’s opinion, which conveniently omitted crucial details proving the Mayor’s early involvement, and later boycott, in the Program.
Though it is expected that the case will be appealed, if it reaches the Supreme Court it will surely be upheld by its highly politicized justices. Whichever the outcome, the course of events should increase pressure on lawmakers to approve local House Bill 2321, a project written by and submitted in February by community leaders both from Guaynabo and throughout the island. Said bill wishes to drastically increase the transparency, fairness and participation of the takings process with amendments similar to those approved in forty-four U.S. states.
With an outdated expropriations law, communities have had to resorted to new legislation and classic lobbying to assure their property rights. Courts have given entire deferential treatment to private developers and taxbase-hungry mayors, stating that the taking of one person’s private property to hand over to another person or private entity is entirely legal. Whichever the route, communities will have to dig in and make a claim for their existence, as they have no place within O’Neill’s Disney-like vision of “Guaynabo City”.
Luis Gallardo Rivera, M.P.A., J.D. is a legislator for the Municipality of Aguas Buenas in Puerto Rico. He is also a member of the Board of Directors for the Association of Municipal Legislators of Puerto Rico and teaches courses in public administration for the University of Phoenix. @LuisGallardoPR