- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2002

A unanimous Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the entire family of a drug user can be evicted under the one-strike law passed to put down a drug dealer's "reign of terror" in public housing.
The high court reversed a decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that called the government position "absurd" and had blocked enforcement of a law passed after President Clinton proposed it in his 1996 State of the Union message.
"It is not absurd that a local housing authority may sometimes evict a tenant who had no knowledge of drug-related activity," said the decision written for the court by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
The government argued that federal law required all leases to include an agreement for eviction "when a member of the tenant's household or a guest engages in drug-related criminal activity, regardless of whether the tenant knew, or had reason to know, of that activity."
The opinion rejected the arguments of four elderly tenants ousted from an Oakland, Calif., project and said, "We agree with [the government]." The vote was 8-0. Justice Stephen G. Breyer did not participate in the case because his brother was the trial judge.
The Supreme Court ruling means 1.2 million tenants of the nation's 3,200 public-housing developments may be held individually responsible for a housemate's drug use, whether at home or elsewhere, or a guest's on-the-premises drug use even if the evicted person has no knowledge of the violation or no control over a guest at the apartment.
"This is a great victory for families in public housing who want to be free from those who infiltrate their community with drugs or commit violent crimes," the Department of Housing and Urban Development said in an unsigned statement.
"As the Supreme Court said, a tenant who cannot control drug-related crime by a household member threatens the health and safety of all residents," HUD said.
Gideon Anders, who heads the National Housing Law Project based in Oakland, said he was discouraged but not surprised by the outcome because February's argument went badly.
"We're not all able to control every family member we may have any more than the country has been able to control the drug problem. To take away from elderly, innocent people the significant benefit of subsidized public housing is an unfortunate situation and speaks volumes about how we enforce laws in our country," Mr. Anders said.
Similar challenges to the law are pending in other courts, whose decisions now will be guided by yesterday's ruling.
Some housing-policy organizations argued that such tools were needed to keep drug problems from becoming worse in public housing, but tenant-support groups fought the action.
"The only way they can get away with it is because it affects poor people," said Sheila Crowley, head of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
The decision allows all housing authorities to enforce the provision and frees the Oakland Housing Authority to resume eviction proceedings against:
Pearlie Rucker, 64, ordered out with her mentally disabled daughter, two grandchildren and a great-grandchild because the daughter was found in possession of cocaine three blocks from their apartment.
Willie Lee, 72, and Barbara Hill, 64, evicted from their separate apartments after their grandsons, who lived in the unit, were caught smoking marijuana together on the project's parking lot.
Herman Walker, 76, a disabled man ordered to leave his home of 10 years because his hired caregiver and two guests had cocaine in his apartment.
The decision effectively converted what tenant advocates portrayed as a civil-rights claim into a tenant-landlord dispute resolved by endorsing no-fault eviction under terms of a lease all tenants must sign.
"This was never a civil-rights issue even though it was sometimes portrayed that way. It was always a matter of a contract setting the terms and conditions under which public-housing tenants occupy their dwellings," said William F. Maher of the Housing and Development Law Institute, which headed a coalition supporting the government stand.
He said the parking-lot cases were not so remote as they were made to seem. Mr. Maher said the drug use occurred outside an eight-unit building in a neighborhood of private homes whose residents reported it.
"Public housing, if it's to be welcomed in a nice, orderly neighborhood, cannot tolerate drug houses on their premises," Mr. Maher said.
It would be unreasonable to subject the government to an "innocent owner defense" when the government is in the role of "landlord in a public housing project," the court said.
A HUD official could not say how extensively local housing authorities use the provision required in leases, under which agencies are permitted to act but not required to do so.
"HUD doesn't run housing; it funds it. Evictions are basically a part of day-to-day management, so HUD doesn't require local housing authorities to report evictions to the department," the official said, insisting that no statistics were available to determine the number of evictions based on illegal drug activity or other causes, such as nonpayment of rent.
"You're not going to have two standards. It's got to be one standard that applies to all," Gary T. Lafayette, attorney for the Oakland Housing Authority, told the court when the case was argued in February.
In its 7-4 ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the Clinton plan contradicted the intent of Congress, whose members "did not intend to authorize the eviction of innocent tenants."
The Supreme Court opinion said legislative history was not binding on the court but disputed what it said was the 9th Circuit's selective reading of that history.


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