Court urged to stop evictions in some drug cases

February 20, 2002|By MARILEE MILLER, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — Lawyers urged the Supreme Court on Tuesday to stop public housing landlords from evicting tenants whose guests and family members are involved in drug use without their knowledge.

The Supreme Court must decide what Congress meant in 1988 when it included in public housing contracts an anti-drug provision that dictates a tenant may be evicted from public housing for "any drug-related criminal activity on or off the premises" even if committed by someone "under the tenant's control."

Chief Justice William Rehnquist told the attorney representing the evicted people that one cannot object to landlords "kicking out tenants when they break their lease." Rehnquist said the attorney's argument was "extremely weak."

The court's decision could have important implications for Imperial County, where nearly one-third of the population falls below the poverty line, about twice the state average, according to recent census data.


In 1997, four senior Oakland public housing tenants were evicted for violating the public housing contract on the grounds that people staying in their homes had been involved in drug activity.

Pearlie Rucker, 63, was one of the tenants. Before her eviction, police found her mentally impaired daughter, Gelinda, who lived with Rucker, three blocks from their home with a crack pipe, according to court documents. Rucker's son, Michael, who did not live in the home, had listed her address as his own when officers found rock cocaine on him. Her eviction notice cited both incidents as violations of her contract.

Justice Antonin Scalia said Rucker didn't take enough steps to prevent drug-use by people living in her home.

"Perhaps she is blameless," he said. "But she didn't do what she promised to do, and that is to make sure that no one resides at the premises who is a source of drug problems. There is nothing unconstitutional about that."

Congress included the drug-activity clause to combat the rise of crime associated with drug use in public housing.

Paul Renne, an attorney representing the evicted people, said not allowing innocent people to appeal their housing evictions is a violation of their right to due process.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said he did not understand why it would be irrelevant that the evicted people had all signed contracts that made clear the repercussions of any drug-activity.

The Drug Policy Alliance, a public interest law center and drug policy reform think tank, disagreed. According to a brief submitted to the court, the eviction of innocent people because of conduct that "neither takes places on the property nor poses any plausible threat to other tenants' interests, is unorthodox."

Gary LaFayette, an attorney for private petitioners, said that the reason rules such as these exist is to "provide residents with safe and decent housing."

James Feldman, a Justice Department attorney representing the Department of Housing and Urban Development, told the court that tenants are aware the eviction of innocent people is a provision of the contract. Tenants can, he said, challenge housing authority decisions in court.

"The underlying theme is household responsibility," Feldman said.

As of January, there were 26,600 public housing units in Imperial County that would be affected by the court's ruling, according to HUD officials. Almost 20,000 of those units are occupied.

Mark Lovington, an attorney with the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said, "It's a hardship to get evicted (in California) and try to find something given that there are low vacancy rates and high rents.

"Your next stop might be a homeless shelter," he said.

John Thelen, project director for the Regional Task Force on the Homeless in San Diego, agreed: "Any housing agency would look at why they were kicked out of their last housing.

"The issue for the housing agency is probably that (the drugs) will go from the streets to the housing department," he said. "Their concern probably is concern for other residents."

Officials with the Calexico and Imperial Valley housing authorities, which receive HUD funding, did not return calls for comment.

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