Pubdate: Sat, 16 Feb 2002
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2002 The Sacramento Bee
Section: Page A3
Author: Herbert A. Sample, Bee San Francisco Bureau


The Supreme Court Will Review A Law That Aims To Keep Drugs Out Of Projects.

OAKLAND -- Herman Walker is a thin, frail man, a former warehouseman who 
has lived here nearly all of his 79 years. Sitting beneath the photos of 
his children and late wife that paper his living room wall, Walker seems an 
unlikely candidate for a dispute over illegal drugs and public housing.

But 4 1/2 years ago, Walker was served an eviction notice after police 
determined that guests of his had used cocaine in and near his Oakland 
Housing Authority apartment.

That thrust Walker and three other elderly housing authority tenants facing 
similar expulsions into a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the 
federal government's "one-strike" law, which permits evictions from public 
housing when residents or their guests are found to be involved in illegal 
drug activity.

"It's crazy. It's sick," Walker said, describing his view of the one-strike 
rule. "It's just pushing down on the poor people. That's what that's for."

Walker and his co-plaintiffs, all of whom deny any knowledge of drug use in 
their apartments, make for sympathetic figures. Evictions would force them 
into the private housing market that is at best unfriendly to seniors of 
little means.

But lawyers for Oakland housing officials say they are looking out for 
tenants of all ages who want to be free of drug users and traffickers. The 
one-strike rule, they insist, is the strong tool they need to accomplish that.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case Tuesday. Legal experts say the 
debate will center primarily on the Department of Housing and Urban 
Development's interpretation of the law, which even allows for the eviction 
of innocent tenants -- those unaware of their guests' or relatives' actions.

The court's ruling could be life-changing for residents and managers of the 
44,000 public housing units in California, including the 4,800 located 
between Sacramento County in the north and Kings County in the south.

Tenants of those homes -- among the 1.2 million public housing units 
nationwide -- are ruled by a housing provision first written by Congress as 
part of a sweeping anti-drug law in 1988.

"Any drug-related criminal activity on or off the premises engaged in by a 
public housing tenant, any member of the tenant's household, or any guest 
or other person under the tenant's control, shall be cause for termination 
of tenancy," the law states.

To strengthen the law, the Clinton administration in the 1990s pegged 
federal funding to a public housing authority's handling of one-strike 
evictions. In theory, authorities retain discretion not to evict innocent 
tenants on one-strike grounds, but critics argue that the financial 
incentives propel evictions.

In Merced County, there have been about three dozen evictions under the 
one-strike policy, though relatively few have been for those considered to 
be innocent tenants.

"We've been watching this very closely," Nick Benjamin, director of Merced 
County Housing Services, said of the case. "We've found one-strike to be 
extremely effective; when there's a waiting list of 1,200 people for public 
housing, it makes sense."

For Walker, the legal journey began in August 1997, when the Oakland 
Housing Authority (OHA) police arrested a woman for possession of cocaine 
and drug paraphernalia in a senior citizens complex that rises above OHA's 
headquarters. The woman told the officers that she had been in Walker's 
top-floor apartment.

Police searched Walker's unit, finding small amounts of rock cocaine and 
pipes, as well as a minor girl and two other women who were not tenants. 
During two subsequent searches, police again found paraphernalia. Housing 
officials then moved to evict Walker.

Similarly, Pearlie Rucker, 66, was served eviction papers in 1997 after her 
son and daughter were arrested separately on suspicion of possessing 
cocaine a few blocks from her East Oakland apartment. Later that year, 
police found the grandsons of Barbara Hill, 66, and Willie Lee, 74, smoking 
marijuana in the parking lot of a North Oakland housing complex.

All four tenants denied using or possessing illegal drugs themselves, and 
all said they were unaware that their guests or relatives had used or sold 

That's beside the point, contends Gary Lafayette, who represents OHA. He 
recalled the days when the now-dead drug kingpin Felix Mitchell ruled from 
an OHA complex near the Oakland Coliseum. He also cited a lawsuit filed 
against OHA in early 1997 by almost five dozen tenants who, in part, 
complained that the authority allowed drug dealers to roam common areas of 
their complexes.

"These types of situations," Lafayette said, "put the (housing) agencies in 
a no-win position. If they don't do anything, residents complain ... . And 
when they do respond, they get charged with responding too harshly."

Rucker's eviction was rescinded after she removed her daughter's name from 
the lease. She remains a plaintiff, though, for technical legal reasons. 
Neither she, Hill nor Lee consented to interviews. That left Walker to be 
the quartet's unofficial spokesman. A volunteer preacher at a local Baptist 
church, Walker can still talk up a storm when the feeling strikes him.

Walker disputes OHA's version of events that led to the eviction notice in 
1997. He implied that the drugs and paraphernalia were planted by one 
officer after three other officers searched his home and came up with nothing.

He also said he is the target of retaliation for efforts he made to improve 
the building's operations when he moved in 10 years ago. "When I came here, 
I straightened things out too much for them," Walker said. "They tried to 
get rid of me."

The Supreme Court is not his last stand, though. Even if the court upholds 
the law, Walker and his co-plaintiffs can still fight their evictions in 
state court.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom