A ‘One Strike’ Battle Planned

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As law-abiding public housing residents across the country continue to walk on pins and needles wondering if they will be evicted for a drug-related crime perpetrated by a family member or a guest, a battle is being planned by Chicago public housing resident leaders and housing activists to get the “One Strike” public housing eviction law amended.

On March 26, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to uphold the One Strike law in the case of the Department of Housing and Urban Development v. Pearlie Rucker, and Oakland Housing Authority v. Pearlie Rucker.

The Rucker case involved four senior residents of the OHA who faced eviction for drug-related activities committed on and off OHA premises by family members and a home-care provider in late 1997 and early 1998.
In explaining the decision, Chief Justice William Renquist wrote that the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, as it was amended in 1996, was designed to fight “the reign of terror on public housing and other federally assisted low-income housing tenants.”

Under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, public housing agencies are required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to include in tenants’ leases a clause that states “that any criminal activity that threatens the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other tenants or any drug-related criminal activity on or off such premises, engaged in by a public housing tenant, any member of the tenant’s household, or any guest or other person under the tenant’s control, shall be cause for termination of tenancy.”

In other words, if a tenant, family member of his or hers, or a guest is charged on or off any public housing property with drug possession or any other drug-related crime, he or she can be evicted.

Many of the nation’s leaders, housing advocates and public housing residents are saying this public housing policy is unfair and impartial treatment of the poor.

In Chicago, the resident leadership council is planning to get the ‘One Strike” policy changed.

CHA has been enforcing its ‘One Strike’ eviction policy at a fast pace since its Plan for Transformation began in 1999. Residents and public housing advocates are concerned about the impact it will have on the current homeless crisis. Richard Wheelock, an attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago and one of the legal counsels for CAC, said in early April that the agency handled 110 One Strike eviction cases.

Bill Wilen, an attorney for the National Center for Poverty Law and legal counsel for Henry Horner Homes, reported 35 as of March 8. At the April 16 CHA Board of Commissioners meeting, East Lake Management reported 75 One Strike cases at the CHA far South Side Altgeld Gardens development in which 25 are pending, 40 were Agreed Orders and 10 were evictions.

Mary Wiggins, chairman of the Central Advisory Council and Local Advisory Council President of Washington Park, said that CHA residents should also be concerned about Mayor Richard M. Daley’s views on One Strike for the general city population.

Under the ‘civil forfeiture statute’ in the U.S. 1988 Anti-Drug Act, a person’s property can be taken from them or confiscated by the city or federal government if the property is used to commit drug-related criminal activities. “Did you read where Mayor Daley said any property that anybody has two felonies he would evict?” Wiggins asked. “They (the city) took a court-way building. It’s not just public housing. It’s going to be across this nation.

“See, you all are worried about public housing but you’d better worry about the city. It’s a reality. Our people won’t have any place to go if he plays that game,” she said.

In 1995, the One Strike law was challenged in a suit Simpson vs. the Chicago Housing Authority, according to Wheelock, the legal counsel for the Central Advisory Council.

“And as a result of that suit, the CAC reached an agreement with CHA to improve the lease. And one of the improvements was to allow residents to raise as a defense that they did not know or had no reason to know about criminal conduct alleged against a guest or family member.

“CHA did comply with that agreement and did change its lease in 1997 and again in 2000,” Wheelock said.

Wheelock said the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago represents many CHA residents in One Strike eviction cases.

“I would imagine that we have handled over 200 (eviction) cases for the year 2001,” Wheelock said, referring to all eviction cases, including those for ‘One Strike’ and for non-payment of rent, among other issues.

“I would say, a third of the One Strike cases involve guests,” he said.

Wheelock said CHA would have to give a 30-day notice to the CAC and to all its residents if it intended to make any changes in the lease.

“That’s the normal procedure under the (HUD) regulation. With an opportunity for residents and the CAC to comment,” he said.

CAC along with its legal counsels are preparing to try and get the Anti-Drug Act amended to include a clause that gives innocent public housing residents a safeguard against eviction.

Robert Whitfield, another legal counsel for the CAC, said that although he agrees with the way the CHA chief Terry Peterson is handling its One Strike evictions, an amendment is needed to the Anti-Drug Act to protect the public housing residents in the future.

“I believe that Terry is a man of this word and I applaud his approach and stance, but Terry will not be here for 10 or 20 years. I think it’s a bad law and needs an amendment. I think it’s a statute run amuck,” Whitfield said.

Whitfield said that public housing residents should be entitled to a statutory defense such as the ‘innocent owner defense,’ which is the civil forfeiture property statute under the Anti-Drug Act that exempts tenants’ property or money from being taken by the U.S. government if they had no knowledge of property being used for drug-related criminal activities.

An example of the ‘innocent owner defense’ is when a landlord uses the defense in court that he or she had no knowledge of nor consented to a tenant or anyone else charged with buying or selling drugs in or on their property. If the landlord proves his or her case, then the property is not taken or forfeited.

Whitfield said the CAC will push Congress to include in the Anti-Drug Act an ‘innocent tenant defense’ clause so that family and senior residents would not lose their homes because of drug or criminal activity they had no knowledge of. He also said the CAC would arrange to meet with CHA soon and inform them of resident leaders’ intentions, and to also ask them for a letter of support. Then CAC would draft a document to present to the Illinois congressional legislators proposing the amendment to the drug law.

“I would hope that the Illinois Caucus can support this effort,” he said.

Housing activist and public housing resident Bamani Obadele said during the April CHA Board of Commissioners meeting that One Strike was unfair to public housing residents across the country and that he would rally against it.

“I don’t believe that One Strike is equal under the law. I am going to put a bus together in protest and I hope that you will be the first one on it,” he said to Francine Washington, Local Advisory Council president of Stateway Gardens.

Leaders’ Opinions
I asked a few of the nations’ leaders what their thoughts were regarding the One Strike law for public housing residents. And I also asked if any of them were proposing changes to the policy.

If someone in Congress wanted to revise the One Strike public housing policy, they could introduce a bill into the U.S. Senate or U.S. House of Representatives to change the policy within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And it would then have to be considered by the appropriate committee in either the House of Representatives or Senate, and then go through a committee vote and then be considered on the house floor, or the Senate floor depending on whether it was initiated from the house or the Senate, according to Stacy Zolt, press secretary for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL).

Zolt said Durbin feels the drug law is needed for public housing residents, and that “there are no plans to introduce such a bill at this time.”

U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-7) said basic consideration in carrying out of the law is the key, not necessarily the changing of the One Strike policy.

“It’s the application of the law oftentimes that is the determinant, and that kind of what makes the difference in terms of how you use the law.

“And you would think that you would have rational people applying the law and that they’re not going to do something that’s overt and stupid,” Davis said. “I don’t know if we would want to change the law. I’m saying, I wouldn’t want a law that says automatically that you are evicted. Nor would I want a law that said ‘you can have all of the dope up in the Robert Taylor Homes that you want and they can’t evict you.’

“I’m saying, the law has to be flexible so that local situations can be dealt with by the individuals who have to administer the law.”

Is One Strike a Deterrent?
The One Strike public housing eviction policy is supposed to be a deterrent to crime within public housing authorities. CHA recently reported that over the past two years there was an 18 percent reduction in crime at CHA sites.

CHA reported at the April 16 Board of Commissioners meeting and in a written statement that, typically, 90 percent of the people arrested at CHA properties buying and selling drugs do not live in public housing.

I asked Chicago Police Commander Ernest T. Brown, who used to run the Chicago public housing unit, on April 4 if the One Strike evictions in CHA were a factor in the reduction of drug-related crime.

“It is all part of the equation. I don’t think it’s the most important factor but I think it all adds up. With aggressive police work-good solid police work-where the residents are treated fairly, One Strike of responsive management, other government agencies from the city that are responsive. I think that all of that has an impact in reducing crime,” he said.

Oakland Evictions Update
Following the March 26 opinion of the Supreme Court in the case of HUD vs. Rucker, the Oakland Housing Authority said in an April 4 written statement that the Authority dismissed its case against Pearlie Rucker in 1998 and that upon review of the other three cases that were included in the Rucker case, OHA intends to dismiss its case against 67 year-old Barbara Hill and 74 year-old Willie Lee.

In the case of 79 year-old Herman Walker, “the Authority is continuing to review the case and is considering requesting to amend their original complaint to address events that have taken place since the original incidents,” OHA Executive Director Jon Gresley stated in the April 4 press release.

In the document, Gresley stated that the Walker case was never a ‘One Strike’ case.

“There have been several different incidents involving a number of different ‘guests,’ with several warnings and other attempts to resolve these issues with Mr. Walker before the Authority filed for eviction,” he stated.

Gresley also stated that OHA believes that Mr. Walker’s continued occupancy of an apartment in a building housing other seniors poses a threat to the other residents of the building, but the Authority remains available to work with Mr. Walker’s legal representatives to find a mutually satisfactory resolution to the case.

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