- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

The Supreme Court struck a blow in favor of law-abiding public housing residents this week, as justices voted unanimously to uphold a Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) policy banning loiterers and criminal outsiders from its properties. At issue was the RRHA’s management of a low-income housing complex in eastern Richmond called Whitcomb Court. During the mid-‘90s, the city was searching for ways to combat drug dealing and other criminal activity there, much of it perpetrated by nonresidents. In June 1997, the Richmond City Council enacted an ordinance effectively turning the public streets of the housing complex over to the RRHA.

By so “privatizing” the streets (in other words, conveying the deeds for them over to the housing authority), the city gained added authority to prosecute assorted undesirables who were involved in maintaining open-air drug markets. The RRHA instituted a policy authorizing city police to arrest nonresidents for trespassing if they could not demonstrate a legitimate business or social purpose for being there.

One individual, who ran afoul of the rules was Kevin Hicks, who was arrested and convicted of trespassing four years ago after ignoring repeated warnings to stay away from Whitcomb Court. In addition to multiple trespassing convictions, Hicks has been convicted of damaging property there as well as possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. (He received an eight-year suspended sentence for the latter crime).

In the Richmond Times-Dispatch last month, columnist Mark Holmberg described the atmosphere of intimidation and criminal behavior at Whitcomb Court that the RRHA has been desperately seeking to reverse. The 447-unit complex was built in 1958, when it welcomed its first two low-income families, both black: one was a family of eight (a construction worker, his wife and six daughters), and the other family of four — a factory worker, his wife and two children. Today, there is not a single household headed by two married parents. Of 480 households living at Whitcomb Court, 446 are headed by females — many of them single mothers. The dominant social figure came to be the male visitor: typically a man who didn’t live in the housing complex. Many had fathered children living there, were unemployed and were involved in drug activity. The RRHA was determined to reform this state of affairs at Whitcomb and 12 other “family developments” that are home to nearly 10,000 low-income people in Richmond.

This determination proved to be absolutely necessary, as the ACLU, acting on Hicks’ behalf, dragged the RRHA into court in an effort to overturn the rules. The Virginia Supreme Court ruled in Hicks’ favor, charging that the housing agency’s rules violated the 1st Amendment. But Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, quite properly held that the ordinance was not aimed at stopping Hicks or anyone else from freely expressing their views on some policy matter; it was aimed at preventing undesirables from trespassing — whatever their reason for doing so.

The decision is likely to have far-reaching, positive implications for public housing complexes across the country. Here in Washington, for example, where approximately 25,000 people live in public housing, officials were relieved to learn that the RRHA position had prevailed. D.C Housing Authority officials, who were present during oral arguments in the case before the Supreme Court several weeks ago, noted that non-residents may not enter public housing properties in the District if they are believed to have engaged in criminal conduct or threatened residents or guards. In essence, the Supreme Court ruling gives local housing authorities much the same authority as private property owners to remove criminals and other undesirables from their property. And that’s a very good thing.

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