Tenants Protest CHA Drug Testing Plan


Residents’ Journal’s video coverage of the June 1, 2011 public hearing on the Chicago Housing Authority’s plans to drug test all tenants, including seniors and those with disabilities as well as their plans to take away the tenants’ defense provision in their lease, for criminal activity committed by a family member or friend, unbeknown to them.

Low-income people from across the city held two days of protest last week against the Chicago Housing Authority’s plans to drug test of all tenants, including tenants of senior buildings. CHA residents and their allies also were protesting the agency’s efforts to limit tenants’ ability to avoid eviction.

On June 1, angry tenants and their advocates from the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization gathered in front of CHA’s downtown headquarters and said the agency’s proposed changes would violate the US Constitution’s 4th Amendment protecting citizens from unreasonable search and seizure.

Minnie Jefferson, an elderly tenant at the CHA’s Vivian Harsh Senior Apartments, 4227 S. Oakenwald Avenue, said she chose to live in public housing after over 30 years as an educator, and that drug testing will not improve the conditions in public housing.

“This proposal is not only a violation of my Fourth Amendment rights but insulting to me as a senior and a resident of CHA,” Jefferson said.

“To single me out for those two policies is unfair and unjust,” added Altgeld Gardens resident Cheryl Johnson, executive director of the People for Community Recovery (Full disclosure: We The People Media collaborates with People for Community Recovery on our Urban Youth International Journalism Program).

Kyanna Bishop, a public housing tenant for the past two years at the CHA Oakwood Shores mixed-income community, said she has been drug tested since she moved in, but feels the policy stigmatizes residents and urged the federal government to intervene.

“I also feel that the drug testing without suspicion is humiliating. I think it is rude, crude, and impersonal,” Bishop said.

Some of the speakers noted that homeowners at CHA’s mixed income sites will not be drug tested under the new policy. CHA currently offers drug treatment to tenants with substance abuse issues through its Caritas Program. But this program is not offered for those facing eviction. Once a resident is charged with an offense, they immediately become ineligible for the program.

Willie J.R. Fleming, a former Cabrini Green public housing tenant and member of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, asked, “What is the purpose of this program that is not going to help a resident before they enter into the legal process?…(T)he program is basically obsolete to a resident who is in dire need of it.”

Fleming added that if all public housing residents are mandated to undergo drug testing, then the same standard should be for everyone else receiving any form of federal subsidies, including first-time homebuyers and those receiving federal financial assistance to attend college.

Public Comment Hearing

The next day, June 2, tenants and their allies packed a public hearing about the proposed changes to CHA’s policies. CHA is bound by federal regulations to host a public hearing within a certain amount of time before they make changes to their policies, and the session was jam-packed at the Charles A. Hayes Family Investment Center, 4859 S. Wabash Ave., with agency CEO Lewis Jordan and other staffers agency.

Residents, their advocates and those living in the private housing market with Housing Choice Vouchers came in busloads that were organized by the tenant councils, maxing out the number of people legally allowed to fill the 350-person capacity multi-purpose room. It was standing room only.

One by one, they all stepped up to the microphone to register their comments. Among dozens who spoke, only two were in favor of the drug testing policy, one of whom was not a resident. Most of the tenants and activists were opposed, like resident Arlene Hill, who said the new policy will result in more evictions and more homelessness. “What it’s really going to do is put more people on the street and less people in housing. Please don’t hold poor people responsible for the ills of others,” said Hill.

People said the drug testing of young and old tenants would not deter the illegal drug activity festering around CHA’s remaining public housing complexes, especially since the illegal drugs and weapons are brought in by outsiders not legally residing in public housing.

One commentator said it would be a shame for people with disabilities and seniors, including grandmothers, to undergo drug testing.

Some challenged the CHA’s One Strike policy, which allows the agency to evict a tenant if they, someone in their household or someone they’re associated with are accused or convicted of committing a crime, off or on CHA property.

One commenter noted that under One Strike, a grandmother raising her grandchildren could be evicted if one of her grandchildren commits a crime on or off CHA property, even if the incident is totally unknown to them.

Several tenants yielded their two minutes of time to others so they could talk about how the cameras CHA recently installed at all its family and senior housing properties were not effective deterrents to crime.

“I think you should work on our surroundings at CHA properties before coming into our homes and try to drug test everybody,” said North Lawndale Scattered Sites West tenant Charlena Whitherspoon.

Shashak Levi, former Local Advisory Council president of the now-demolished Robert Taylor Homes B complex, cited numerous court cases to argue that the drug testing would be constitutional unless it also applied to other buildings that have received federal subsidies, including those that house middle- and upper-income tenants.

“The Constitution prohibits across-the-board, suspicion-less testing; it would have to apply in retro-housing in downtown Chicago: Lake Point Towers, Presidential Towers, [and] Marina City. Not just the public housing residents. The City of Chicago nor its Housing Agency can oppress or burden the applicants with such unconstitutional, draconian policies,” said Levi.

Renaud Tatum, an 11-year resident at the mixed-income 3939 S. Lake Parc Place, challenged CHA chief Jordan to hire a third party consulting firm to do some scientific research on whether public housing residents have a greater drug problem than other communities. Tatum asked if there was really “a correlation between low-income people having a higher usage of drugs than people with higher incomes?”

Ald. Dowell Opposes Policy Changes

During the meeting, CHA officials also confirmed that they were changing another policy that would stop tenants facing a One Strike eviction from being able to claim that they weren’t aware that someone on their lease was charged with a crime.

“So, if a member of the household gets arrested for a criminal activity, the CHA will proceed with an eviction, whether or not the head of household knew,” said Stephenie Horton, director of compliance at CHA’s Asset Management Department.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3) does not support the policy change. She commented at the meeting that both the drug testing policy and the change to the One Strike defenses are “wrong and should not be applied to our people.” She added that “our folks are being penalized as a result of the ills of America.”

The alderman continued, “Our tax policies, racism, corporate greed, and other sins have created our problems. And yes, we exacerbate them sometimes, but we have to resist what seems to be expedient. The answers lie not in what we’re doing here tonight, but in efforts to correct our American sickness. And I just wanted to acknowledge that you are in a tough spot as an African American male. But these policies are wrong.”

Legal Assistance

Elizabeth Rosenthal, an attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, told Residents’ Journal the day of the public hearing that she thought drug testing all tenants is unfair and raises serious legal questions.

“There are constitutional questions about illegal searches. You have to have probable cause to conduct a search of someone and we feel that the drug test is the equivalent of an illegal search.”

Rosenthal added that CHA hasn’t done enough investigation into the privacy concerns, record keeping issues, and the cost concerns that are raised by authority-wide drug-testing.

“And we also think that they haven’t done enough research and studying of whether or not this is actually going to be a measure that in fact prevents crime,” she added.

Rosenthal said that she is also “very concerned” about CHA’s proposal to also eliminate the “innocent tenant defense” provision in the current tenants’ leases under the One Strike policy.

“Removing that protection from the lease is really just going to mean that innocent people, innocent families, are going to be losing the only safe and decent housing that they can afford. And we think that is essentially fundamentally unfair,” Rosenthal said.

“This is really stigmatizing public housing residents who get government help because they’re poor.”

Rosenthal said she also thinks that a CHA policy to drug test Section 8 Housing Voucher holders renting in the private housing market “is going to be the next step coming down the road.”

Adam Schwartz, senior staff counsel of the ACLU, predicted that if the policies allowing CHA-wide drug testing goes into effect and is challenged in court, a judge would rule that it violates state and federal law. If passed, the policies would go into effect the next time a tenant signs their lease agreement with CHA during their annual recertification.

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