Pubdate: Mon, 01 Apr 2002
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2002 Austin American-Statesman
Author: William Raspberry


The Supreme Court has upheld a controversial federal policy that allows 
public housing officials to evict entire families when a family member -- 
even a teen-age child -- is caught with illegal drugs in or near the 
housing complex.

And you know what? I'm glad.

No, I'm not glad that Pearlie Rucker, a 63-year-old great grandmother, was 
threatened with eviction by the Oakland Housing Authority because her adult 
son and her mentally disabled daughter were caught with cocaine in separate 
incidents several blocks from their home. That was too rough a decision, 
and I've been told that, following last Tuesday's ruling, the OHA is 
reconsidering. But I'm glad the housing authorities still have that weapon 
in their arsenal.

You might be, too, if you can get past the awfulness of having poor 
helpless grandmothers tossed out of their homes and remember why the rule 
was introduced in the first place. It was at a time when drug dealers and 
gangbangers were turning public housing complexes into virtual crime 
bazaars. The noncriminal majority of residents found their lives turned 
upside down by neighbors -- and neighbors' children -- who were using and 
selling drugs, either from individual apartments or on the grounds.

What to do about it? As the law then stood, unless the person in whose name 
the apartment was leased was caught red-handed, he or she had only to plead 
ignorance to the illegal activity.

But soon, leaders in the public housing tenant-management movement got sick 
of it, and people like the late Kimi Gray of Washington and Bertha Gilkey 
of St. Louis started pressing federal officials to give them the leeway to 
pressure tenants to shape up or face eviction.

One result was sterner screening standards for new tenants, another was the 
right to award (with choicer units) residents who kept their places up and 
their children under control. A third was the so-called "One Strike" policy 
that Pearlie Rucker and others fought all the way to the Supreme Court, 
where they lost last week.

Under "One Strike," tenants have to sign a lease that includes an agreement 
to keep their public housing premises free of criminal activity. The 
implication is that they know, or should know, what is going on in their 
homes -- and if they don't, the threat of being suddenly homeless should be 
enough to pique their curiosity.

Nor would it be enough under the policy simply to move the criminal 
activity outside the apartment -- or even just outside the grounds. Drug 
dealing by a member of a resident's household near the complex could still 
result in eviction.

Could. The eviction is permitted but not required, which is why the 
handling of the particular case of Pearlie Rucker seemed unnecessarily 
ham-handed. A rule requiring proof of knowledge would do nothing to stop 
the descent into chaos that marks so many public housing complexes. A rule 
requiring eviction under any and every circumstance of family-member 
involvement with criminality would be just another example of "zero 
tolerance" gone mad. The inflexibility of crack cocaine enforcement has 
America's prisons bursting at the seams, with little positive to show for 
it. People have to be free to make judgments based on a totality of 
circumstances -- even with a presumption of knowledge. Based on what I've 
read of the Rucker case, a stern warning would have made a lot more sense 
than summary eviction.

But I understand, too, the fragility of poor communities, and their special 
vulnerability to the predations of a relative handful of miscreants. There 
are public housing and other low-income communities where ordinary 
residents dare not enjoy the spring breeze or allow their children to play 
on the grounds because the criminal element has taken over.

It really comes down to a choice between a liberal interpretation of the 
civil liberties of those affected by "One Strike" and enforcing at least 
the possibility of a safe community for those willing to live by the rules.

Having seen both the devastation wreaked by the gangbangers and the hopeful 
patience of poor families on the long waiting lists for public housing, I 
choose "One Strike."

Sensibly enforced, of course. Grandma Pearlie doesn't need to be on the street.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom