Hard-line Policy On Drug Evictions Puts Pressure On The Innocent, Too

Posted: June 10, 1990

Willie Mae Wilson knows too well that the nation's war against drugs is getting tough on the innocent.

Wilson, who cares for her disabled mother and three grandchildren in the Venice Ashby housing project, recently received a cordial, one-page letter

from the Bucks County Housing Authority. It warned Wilson that she and the rest of the family would be evicted from the housing project in Bristol Township if her daughter, now serving a prison sentence for selling drugs, came home.

"This talk of eviction puzzles me," Wilson, 61, said recently on a hot afternoon. "The man from the housing authority said it seemed cruel, but he said they were his boss' orders."

In fact, the orders came from Washington. Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), announced last year that anyone convicted of a

drug offense - buying, selling or using - would be barred forever from public housing.

It was - and, indeed, still is - a popular decision, particularly among public-housing residents who have seen their neighborhoods ravaged by drugs. But the ruling is also pushing some innocent families out of their homes and raising questions of whether such a policy prevents drug offenders who want to change their lives from doing so.

Willie Mae Wilson supports the war on drugs, especially in her cruel neighborhood, where crack and gunfire are openly exchanged. She thinks her daughter Sharon, who was seven months pregnant when she sold $20 worth of crack to an undercover police officer last summer, should have gone to jail.

But Wilson doesn't know how her daughter can start life anew without a place to live. And she does not know what she will do if her daughter shows up when she is released from prison in August.

"I think it's really dirty for people to get thrown out for somebody else's actions," she said.

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Evicting drug offenders has added myriad complications to the seesaw battle against drugs - not the least of them what to do about people such as Sharon Wilson's mother and children.

Building on the federal policy, housing authorities and some state and local governments have expanded the housing ban to include not only convicted

drug dealers, but even suspected crack addicts and their families.

There is no uniformity on when evictions should occur. Some housing authorities do not wait for a tenant to be convicted; an arrest, or even the word of other tenants, is sometimes sufficient to evict a family.

Civil libertarians argue that evicting a person before he is convicted violates constitutional rights to due process. Social service agencies complain that the policy merely shuffles the problem from one government-run program to the next. Drug-addicted parents, for example, often leave toddlers behind to be collected by relatives or child welfare agencies.

"It's rather a myopic way to deal with drug users," said Olga Tomar, an attorney for Legal Aid Society of Mercer County, N.J. "Do you solve the drug problem by making them homeless? Society will end up facing much larger problems."

Supporters of the policy say that, if anything, it's too lenient. Some housing authority officials and members of Congress want even tougher federal eviction laws. They say the eviction process, a civil proceeding, can take up to 15 months, allowing drug dealers to continue hawking crack in and around public housing.

Moreover, many public housing tenants say they are grateful for anything that will help stem the violence that taunts their neighborhoods. Many have launched their own war; in Philadelphia, tenants' groups have pressured Community Legal Services, which provides legal help to the poor, not to represent tenants facing drug-related evictions.

Terri Claybrook, an attorney for the Philadelphia Housing Authority, said that tenants such as Willie Mae Wilson did have rights but that those rights had to be balanced against "the rights of other tenants to live in a safe,

drug-free environment. It's the argument of what's best for the majority."

"There are some consequences to some innocent people like children," said Martin J. Hillman, director of the Trenton Housing Authority, "but I still think, through evictions, the greater good is being served. I have tenants who have come to me and thanked me for a good night's sleep because drugs have been moved out." The Trenton Housing Authority carried out 150 evictions last year, half of them drug related.

Some housing authority officials do not share Hillman's confidence. One official, who asked not to be named, said: "It's easy to say we'll take a broom and sweep them all out. That's fine if it's a single male, but what are we going to do with minor children? I wonder if Secretary Kemp envisioned the problems with these regulations. When they came out last year we jumped on Kemp's bandwagon, but now we're seeing the reality."

"I anticipate this being a serious problem for us," said Anne Lynn, senior supervisor for placement services for Bucks County Children and Youth Services. "Either (tenants) can relocate in Trenton or Philly, or they're going to be looking at us to provide foster care.

"It will be a public relations nightmare for the housing authority."

Such concerns have not slowed the rush to judgment in cities across the nation. The Chicago Housing Authority is adding a specific drug-violation clause to its lease. In New York City, the housing authority is using the Federal Drug Forfeiture Act, which strips drug barons of their yachts and mansions, to evict families from housing projects. In 1989, the New York Housing Authority completed about 1,000 evictions, about 40 percent of them

drug related.

HUD recently started a pilot program in which 23 cities are using forfeiture laws to seize public-housing apartments and speed evictions. And in 40 states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, public housing authorities can bypass tenant-grievance hearings and take drug-eviction cases right into court.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority has stepped up its attacks on drug offenders, according to PHA's Claybrook. "A policy decision was made to get tough on these cases," she said. Some tenants, including Virginia Wilks, president of the Tenants Council for the Richard Allen Homes, said the authority was not vigilant enough.

"If the evictions could be speeded up, then it would be a cure," Wilks said.

PHA has not amended its lease to specifically cite drug violations, a move recommended by Philadelphia Municipal Court's president judge, Alan K. Silberstein. Instead, PHA uses a clause known as "serious interference" with others as a way to evict drug offenders. This wording, according to attorneys representing tenants, is too broad and is being challenged in the courts.

Frances Mae Ligon, a resident at Richard Allen, stood in the hallway outside of Philadelphia's Municipal Court two weeks ago, waiting for her ''serious interference" case to be heard. Ligon said that she did not know why she was there and that no one had explained to her that PHA was trying to evict her family because of alleged drug activity in her home.

"Is this something I need a lawyer for?" she said. "I don't know what's going on."

PHA attorneys and court employees said that, in other cases, tenants know exactly what's going on. Claybrook said she had had cases in which the mother in the home denies knowledge of drug activity yet she "has a Cadillac." One court employee said: "One woman came in here in a leather outfit, had to cost at least $1,000, and she's in public housing?"

Statistics kept by PHA show that, so far this year, six people have been evicted from the authority's 31,000 apartments specifically for drugs, but Courtenay Bachan Cannady, PHA spokeswoman, said that number did not factor all evictions that involve drugs. For instance, she said PHA evicts about 10 people a week, or 520 a year, for all sorts of reasons, including nonpayment of rent. The "overwhelming majority" of these evictions are linked to crack, she said.

Tenants who face eviction are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain legal representation.

In Philadelphia, Community Legal Services, established to provide representation to the poor, limits taking on drug-related eviction cases. Lou Rulli, CLS's executive director, said such cases oftentimes posed a conflict of interest because CLS represents tenants' groups that are fighting to clean up crack-laden projects. He said the drug evictions were referred to other agencies.

George Gould, CLS's managing attorney, said tenants' groups "have come to us and said they didn't want us to get involved in drug cases."

The Volunteers for the Indigent Program, an award-winning group of Philadelphia attorneys who provide free legal help, has been urged by "some people in the legal community" not to take on drug-eviction cases, said VIP director Eve Biskind Klothen. Klothen said she was surprised that lawyers would make such a request, adding, "It's been an unhappy discovery for me."

Klothen said VIP did not represent convicted drug dealers. But, she said, VIP will handle cases in which people face eviction after being accused of

drug crimes.

"In many cases this is the last stop for people," Klothen said. "If they don't get counsel here, they won't get counsel. . . . I do have a fear that one legacy of the drug era will be a reduction of civil liberties."

Secretary Kemp has made it clear he did not want federal money being spent for lawyers to represent suspected drug dealers. In a letter sent last month to the Legal Services Corp., which distributes federal money to Community Legal Services offices nationwide, Kemp stated that, by taking on drug- eviction cases, LSC contradicted the drug war HUD was waging.

"This is clearly a case of government programs working at cross purposes," the letter stated. "While . . . (HUD) is funding programs to help (public housing authorities) improve security and streamline evictions, Legal Services Corp. (offices) are working to frustrate these efforts."

Frank Keating, HUD's general counsel, said the administration's intent was to speed eviction proceedings into state courts, not to violate civil rights. The federal policy, he said, "is about as due process as you can get"

because "like rich people," public housing tenants are given full use of the judicial system.

Howard H. Dana Jr., a Maine attorney and a member of the LSC board, said he had mixed feelings about legal service offices turning their backs on suspected drug offenders. Although he supports the basic theory behind Kemp's argument, Dana said he was troubled by a policy that systematically discriminates against certain clients, especially when those clients have not been convicted in criminal court.

"It's a tough issue," he said. "In a sense, when you're in a war, innocent people get hurt. The potential for a tyranny of the majority is immense. . . . It's not unlike when we rounded up the Japanese Americans and

put them in internment camps after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Civil libertarians have a legitimate concern."

Such concerns have ignited criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and attorneys who say an overzealous federal government is trampling on individual rights. Civil rights activists say this occurs because evictions are civil proceedings that require a much lower burden of proof than criminal cases.

In Allentown, for example, housing authority officials check police reports daily. Anyone arrested for drugs who lists a public housing address is mailed an eviction notice. "And within three days they usually move out," said Paul Zimmerman, the authority's executive director. The Allentown authority has evicted 25 people for drug-related activity since the HUD ruling last year.

Judith L. Jones, executive director of Lehigh Valley Legal Services, said some of the evictions in Allentown might have occurred because people were frightened. "They may not have needed to move out," she said, "and they probably never would have been convicted in a court of law. But many people don't know their rights."

Attorneys on both sides of the issue expect some cases to reach Superior Court and Supreme Court levels on constitutional grounds, particularly on the issue of self-incrimination. Lawyers say that, if a defendant accused of a

drug offense in a criminal case must first testify in a civil eviction hearing, the testimony could be used against him in the criminal case.

Questions also are being raised about family members not accused of any

drug activity. In previous cases involving public-housing tenants, some courts have ruled that tenants cannot be evicted for the actions of relatives, while others have ruled that tenants can be evicted if they have knowledge that a relative is selling drugs.

Silberstein, president judge of Philadelphia Municipal Court, said tenants were responsible for what went on in the home. He said many cases dealt with mothers who contended that they had no knowledge their teenage sons were selling drugs.

"If I'm judge I say to them, 'If you can't stop him you'll be evicted.' Why should everyone else have to suffer because she can't control her son?"

State legislatures also are getting tougher on suspected drug dealers. A new amendment to New Jersey's landlord-tenant laws states that people can be evicted on drug allegations even if they have never been arrested. There need only be a "preponderance" of evidence that the person is using drugs.

"These laws are ill conceived," said Connie M. Pascale, senior attorney for Legal Services of New Jersey. "They are a reaction to the drug hysteria. This issue is not going to go away; it's going to multiply."

John Gieda, a board member of the Bucks County Housing Authority, said he knew that the laws and policies were harsh. But he also said he remembered a time when there were no gunshots and no street-corner crack dealing in the 123-unit Venice Ashby project.

"We're not in the business to treat drug dealers," Gieda said. "We're here to run a wholesome housing community."

When asked about evictions of people such as Willie Mae Wilson, Gieda said, ''It's a very difficult thing for me. I have mirrors in my house that I have to look into every day. . . . It's a no-win situation for all of us. But if we err, we always err on the side of the law-abiding citizens."

Willie Mae Wilson sat in her living room recently with her grandsons Geoffrey, 4, and Gregory, 2, at her side. An open window let in a humid breeze and the low murmur of a soap opera came from the television.

Wilson said she hoped that her daughter, who was born in a housing project 19 years ago, "will turn herself around and go straight." But it's the children she worries about most.

"Sharon can stay on the street or stand on the side of a pole to sleep," said Wilson. "These kids, they can't do that."

Her eyes moved slowly over the small apartment.

"I don't get the best for them," she said. "It don't look the best. But it's a shelter over their heads."

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