This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on May 16, 2016.
Hinga Mbogo came to America from Kenya for an education; he wound up living the American dream. His 30-year-old automotive repair shop on Dallas’ Ross Avenue has provided a living for his family and employees while satisfying thousands of customers.
Sadly, part of his dream may be coming to an end. The Dallas City Council recently voted to shut down his blue-collar business to make room for more aesthetically pleasing uses such as upscale apartments or, as a council member stated, businesses like “Starbucks and the Macaroni Grill.” Only the courts or the Texas Legislature stand in the way of the council completing its decadelong land grab.
After getting his education in Miami, Mbogo came to Dallas for a job interview. He didn’t get the job and didn’t have enough money to get back to Miami. But, as he walked around Dallas wondering what to do next, he saw something that he had never seen in Miami: “Help wanted” signs posted in businesses all over town.
That’s when Mbogo first realized there was something special about Texas.
Mbogo started Hinga Auto Repair in 1985. Over a period of 20 years, Mbogo built his business, supported his family and worked hard. Then the city of Dallas stepped in.
Hinga Auto Repair was just one of a number of automotive-relative businesses along Ross Avenue in 2005. Across the street was Woodard Paint & Body Shop, with other repair shops and used car lots at various locations.
While the satisfied customers, jobs, and economic activity provided by these businesses would have been seen as a blessing to most, some members of the city council, local developers and residents of a nearby neighborhood saw them instead as a blight, being not quite up to their aesthetic standards. Deciding to remake Ross Avenue to fit their trendy, upscale vision, the city council rezoned Ross Avenue, banning automotive related business.
It didn’t take long for most of the automotive businesses to disappear. Both Mbogo and the Woodward brothers fought to keep their businesses and received temporary reprieves from the council. Today, Hinga Auto Repair is the only auto business remaining, but the council recently refused to extend its soon-to-expire reprieve by an 8-5 vote.
The city of Dallas can get away with shutting down these unfashionable businesses because Texas courts have decided that while Texans may own property, we “do not acquire a constitutionally protected vested right in property uses.” In other words, property owners need the permission of government to use their property for any purpose.
Even worse, though the government may have at one time granted permission for a certain use — such as auto repair shop — it can withdraw it, even if it means shutting down an existing business. To make this edict seem a bit less barbaric, the courts rely on a concept called amortization.
As the Houston Court of Appeals explained: “Amortization is a valid technique to allow owners of property to recoup their investment in property that becomes nonconforming as a result of the regulations.” All the government has to do, according to the courts, is give owners a little time to “recoup” their investment before shutting down their businesses. There is no consideration of the income, jobs, and property value that vanish when the “nonconforming” business is terminated.
When asked why he is still fighting the city when everyone else has given up, Mbogo replied: “This is not just my business; it is my home.” And while has he not become bitter through the 10-year battle, he doesn’t understand why the city and his neighbors want to take away his livelihood.
Texas is still the special place Mbogo experienced when he arrived, standing as a bastion for freedom in the midst of increasing government encroachment out of Washington. But the fact that we allow cities to shut down businesses and reduce property values without compensation proves we have some work to do. So does the statement of the president of the nearby Bryan Place Neighborhood Association about Mbogo’s plight: “We are sympathetic, but it is time for him to comply.”
Texans have proved numerous times during the last 195 years that resistance to tyranny is not futile. Mbogo’s fight is more than a fight for his business, or even for his dreams; it is a fight for the freedom of all Texans. Let’s hope he succeeds.
Peacock is the vice president for research and director for the Center for Economic Freedom at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Henneke is general counsel and director of the Center for the American Future at the foundation.