Transforming CHA: Court Slam Dunks One Strike

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The nations first federal appellate court ruling for public housing residents challenging the One Strike provision could lead to the abolition of the federal law which is being used to evict public housing residents in Chicago and across the country.

Oakland Tribune reporter Josh Richman broke the story of four senior residents of the Oakland Housing Authority in California who scored a slam-dunk against One Strike on Jan. 24.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the One Strike policy to be unconstitutional and reversed a prior decision to evict the public housing residents. The elderly residents were being evicted for drug-related activity that occurred inside and outside of their apartments and of which they had no knowledge.

The One Strike Policy
In March 1996, former U.S. President Bill Clinton signed into effect the Housing Opportunities Extension Act, which includes the One Strike clause that appears in the nations public housing residents leases.

Under One Strike, a leaseholder can be evicted if a guest, relative or family member is charged with a drug-related crime within or outside of a public housing authority’s property. One Strike states that if a person is found to have in his or her possession any illegal drugs during a police raid or drug bust in the leaseholder’s unit, the leaseholder can be evicted, whether or not a leaseholder knows about the drugs. If a person that is on a lease is charged with drug possession or any drug-related crime that allegedly occurred off public housing property, the leaseholder can be evicted, regardless of whether the person being charged is proven guilty or not.

A Fight to the End
In the early part of 1998, the Oakland Housing Authority tried to evict four senior public housing residents for drug-related activity that they had no knowledge of.

Herman Walker, a 77-year-old man with disabilities, was being evicted because his home care provider was found with crack cocaine in Walkers apartment.

Barbara Hill, 65, and Willie Lee, 73, were being evicted because each had grandsons who were charged with possession of marijuana in a public housing parking lot.

65-year-old Pearlie Rucker’s son was charged with cocaine possession 3 blocks from where she lived, leading to efforts to evict her.

Ann Omura, a managing attorney who worked on the court case and is executive director of the Eviction Defense Center in Oakland, told Residents’ Journal that a California district court ruled in the residents’ favor at first and granted them an injunction stopping the housing authority from evicting them.

But then the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Oakland Housing Authority appealed the decision to the 9th Circuit Court. Omura said the appellate court judges hearing the case did not find the One Strike policy unconstitutional and ruled in favor of HUD and the housing authority in February 2000.

A panel of 3 judges said that it was perfectly constitutional to evict the seniors, said Omura.

Omura said an appeal was made on the residents’ behalf for a rehearing in bank, meaning that a request was made for all eleven 9th Circuit Court judges to hear the case instead of just three judges.

The request was granted in August and Omura said the judges made a 7 to 4 decision in favor of the seniors. “Those 11 judges came back with a 7 to 4 decision in our favor basically saying that it was unconstitutional. The seniors cannot be evicted, Omura said.

Omura said the appellate court’s decision has nationwide ramifications for all other public housing residents facing court eviction under the One Strike policy.

Public housing residents of other states who are being evicted on similar One Strike cases and want to file the same type of lawsuit would need to find a legal aid attorney, Omura said. The attorney would then have to file an injunction in the resident’s local or state court and then take it up in the appropriate federal court. She suggested the lawsuit be filed by a group of residents.

“You have to find a couple of people who have good facts, who are being evicted on a One Strike case where the activity occurred outside of the unit and the tenants didnt know about it, she said.

Omura said that although the appellate court’s decision was victorious, the case could be petitioned to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s a victory for now but they – HUD and the Oakland Housing Authority – can petition to the Supreme Court. Then it’s up to the Supreme Court. Its not over, Omura said.

Omura threw caution to the wind and speculated a dim outcome by the U.S. Supreme Court if the petition was heard. “The Supreme Court is very, very, conservative and they don’t care about the rights of poor people who live in housing authorities, she said.

Whitty Somvichian, an associate attorney of the Cooley law firm in San Francisco, was the four senior Oakland public housing residents appellate court attorney.

Somvichian told Residents’ Journal during a phone conversation that the One Strike law is unconstitutional when it’s applied to evict tenants based on somebody elses wrongdoing.

“I think it’s a basic constitutional principle that you shouldn’t be punished. You shouldn’t have your rights or benefits taken from you just because of what somebody else did if you didn’t have any way to know about it or to prevent it, he said.

Somvichian is sure that HUD and the Oakland Housing Authority will file a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. But he said there is no guarantee that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear it.

“The government here is definitely going to pursue that and try to get it heard by the Supreme Court,” Somvichian said. “But there’s no guarantee that the Supreme Court will hear it. The Supreme Court can do whatever it wants.” Somvichian agreed with Omura that this case can help public housing residents in other states that are being evicted under One Strike for alleged crimes committed by someone other than the leaseholder. By citing the 9th Appellate Court’s decision at their court hearings, Somvichian said eviction judges hearing the case might take it into consideration.

Even though its not technically binding, theyll – the judges – still look to it as whats called persuasive authority, he said.

CHA One Strike Court Cases
The victory in the Oakland case is not yet helping residents CHA is evicting under One Strike.
On the same day in January, four CHA residents won slight victories in the One Strike eviction cases against their property manager, William Moorehead and Associates.

Ramona Mathis, a resident of the Robert Taylor “A” development, won her eviction case against the private management firm that CHA contracted to manage the property.

Moorehead tried to evict Mathis, a mother of three, because her son was charged with possession of a cigar filled with marijuana instead of tobacco. Mathis said the court ruled that the One Strike clause was not in her lease and therefore she won her case.

Like the judge stated, that One Strike is not inside the clause, Mathis said.

Mathis said she was glad of the court’s decision but would remove her son from her lease to prevent her from jeopardizing her other children.

“I’m glad but I’m going to get my son off my lease,” she said. “I’ve got a 6-year-old son and a 13-year-old.” Robert Taylor “A” resident Conchita Brandon was being evicted because her son was charged with possession of cocaine near a parking lot on CHA property.

Brandon was ordered to provide the management office with a certified letter from her sister the following day stating that her son was living with her sister at the time of his arrest. If Brandon could not provide the letter, she would have until March 31 to move.

The private management firm made a deal with the other two CHA residents being evicted. The two residents had to remove the person charged with the drug-related crime from their lease and they had to sign a written agreement between the private management firms and themselves stating that they would agree to keep the person barred from the unit out of the home. The two were also given a 2-year probation period to continue to live in public housing.

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