If you think your landlord is hardcore, just try renting from the federal government.
Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court upheld a law that would permit the eviction of a woman from her public-housing apartment after her mentally disabled daughter was caught with crack three blocks away.
Although a federal court of appeals had ruled that the law, passed by Congress in 1988 and implemented by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1991, wasn't meant to victimize innocent tenants, the Supreme Court upheld the eviction. According to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing the opinion for the 8-0 ruling, the so-called one-strike eviction law does not protect innocent family members from being evicted.
Far from it. The zero-tolerance antidrug law maintains that an entire household may be evicted after a single drug infraction of a resident or houseguest. And, in the case of residents, the infraction may have happened anywhere in the United States. For instance, if an 18-year-old boy who lives with his grandmother is arrested for smoking weed during an outing to New York City, the woman, back home in San Francisco, can be legally evicted from her federally subsidized apartment. Or, if someone visiting that same woman's granddaughter was found with drugs, the entire family could lose its home.
In the wake of the court's announcement, HUD declared that the ruling was a "great victory for families in public housing." On the other side, lawyers for the plaintiffs -- four elderly tenants in Oakland who had been served eviction notices after family members (or, in one case, a caretaker) had been caught with drugs -- emphasized that the law unfairly victimizes the poor and the powerless. (One problem with California law is that you aren't allowed to evict just one tenant; all actions must be against the entire household.)
To the outsider, this law might seem to be a patently blunt, chowder-headed weapon in the nation's war against drugs, so I was inclined to side with the tenant groups. Yet, I also wondered, if I were one of the nation's 3 million residents of public housing -- fearful of drug-related drive-bys, freaked out that my children would see drug use or dealing as one of their few possible futures -- would I be quietly breathing a sigh of relief?
So, trolling the alleys of my local project, San Francisco's spiffy Bernal Dwellings, with its mix of African-American, Latino, Asian and white residents, I went in search of the people for whom this law was, more than a matter of theoretical justice, a matter of life, death and potential homelessness.
I met Terry, a 38-year-old father of 12, sitting on his front stoop. "It's too biased," he said, interrupting me as I began explaining the court's recent ruling, which he apparently knew all too well. "Are you supposed to strip-search everyone who comes into your home?"
In a rush of words, the rugged-looking but gregarious street sweeper (or "environmental engineer," as he wryly put it) recounted three tales of police brutality in which law-enforcement personnel had targeted his friends or family, planting evidence on them and nailing them for crimes they didn't commit. Terry seemed to think that now, armed with this new eviction weapon, the housing authorities and the police could carry out their plan to transform the tenant population: "They want to get the poor people out of the projects so the middle-class people can move in." As evidence, he claimed that every new tenant who had replaced an old tenant at the new development was what he called "not just normal middle class, but San Francisco middle class."
(According to the property manager, Terry is misinformed. The development has been open for only a year, and there has been no resident turnover. In addition, the property manager said, when there is a vacancy, it will be filled in exactly the same manner, with the same income criteria, as the rest of the units were. Terry may be referring to the fact that Bernal Dwellings isn't all low income, as were the Army Street Projects, the public-housing development that previously occupied the same site; it places some applicants with moderate incomes.)
For Terry, the antidrug law concerning household members is only part of the problem. "If there's a dispute between a husband and a wife, and the police come, you can be evicted," he said. "If you get behind on your PG&E, you can be evicted. [Terry did not mention that HUD pays a good portion of tenants' PG&E bills.] If anyone enters your home and they have drugs on them, you can be evicted."
What about those tenants who believe the law is justified? "They can think what they want, but it could happen to them," he said with a shrug. "They don't know what their families are doing. Nobody does."
Terry's perspective articulated a worldview I found to be alive and well within the world of public housing: The system is out to get the poor, and this new law will only make it easier for more bad things to happen to good people. This is, at least, the opinion of the tenants who were the most willing to talk, those hanging out on the street in the middle of a workday. And they readily offered me an earful of opinions, only to decline to give even their first names.
A quieter, less obtrusive segment of the community was also visible, but a good deal more camera shy, than its fellow curb-hangin' members. This group consisted of families that didn't dally, but hustled their children from their apartments into minivans, of elderly folk visiting the management office and of single people who seemed steadfastly focused on their destinations.
After several unsuccessful attempts to gather more opinions, I accosted a dramatically blond, dark-eyed woman exiting her apartment with her two young daughters. At first Lupita Gonzalez echoed the comments of other tenants: The Supreme Court ruling wasn't fair. But when I rephrased the question, asking her whether she supports the law, she said she does.
"If the grandmother knew about it," Gonzalez said, "then by all means she should be evicted."
"And if she didn't?" I pressed.
She paused before replying, "That's a tough one. I guess it should be on a case-by-case basis."
Of course, that's exactly what the present law allows, but it's the Housing Authority that gets to decide each case, without any legal restrictions explicitly stating that innocent people should not be evicted. Thus, the government has invested public-housing staff and administrators with unusual power to help fight the war on drugs even if doing so renders innocent people homeless.
In the cases brought before the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs appear to have been chosen to highlight the law's capriciousness. The leading plaintiff, Pearlie Rucker, 63, who cares for two grandchildren and a great-grandchild, as well as a mentally disabled daughter, was served an eviction notice after her daughter was caught with crack three blocks from their apartment. Rucker insisted she'd taken pains to keep drugs out of her home, even going so far as to search the bedrooms of her charges.
Willie Lee, 71, and Barbara Hill, 63, got eviction notices after their grandsons were caught with marijuana in the parking lot outside their building. (If having a teenager who smokes marijuana is grounds for eviction, millions of middle-class families should be out on their heinies.) And 75-year-old Herman Walker, who is disabled, was threatened with eviction after receiving three warnings that his caretaker possessed cocaine.
Rucker, whose daughter was incarcerated, no longer faces eviction, but the other plaintiffs are now waiting for a review of their cases by the Oakland Housing Authority. It's as if the Supreme Court has said, "This isn't our jurisdiction. It's up to your property manager."
So how do the people who actually have to manage and maintain public housing feel about the laws that give them one-strike, zero-tolerance powers?
"I think it's a good law," says Bernal Dwellings property manager LaTonya Glover. "Because there are grandmothers that say they do not know what's going on in their house, but they do."
But almost at once, she begins to qualify her position. "It's a seesaw," she says finally, suggesting that she's torn between appreciating the law's intent and protecting the individual's rights. "If you do not do something wrong, you shouldn't be evicted."
Glover seems uncomfortable about issuing any judgments from on high. The immaculately coiffed, businesslike young woman once lived in the bad ol' Army Street Projects, which were demolished and then reincarnated as Bernal Dwellings last year. "I don't use the word projects," she says. "That's a dirty word. I tell my residents, 'This is Bernal Dwellings, like any other apartment development.'"
At the same time, she's frank about the added energy she puts into keeping her property safe. "I keep my eyes open," she said. "I try to have a relationship, even if it's only to say hello to every tenant, to let them know I see them. I listen to everyone; I go to all the tenant meetings." She also tries to model positive behavior by picking up trash off the sidewalks or engaging the kids in a game of double-dutching jump rope or getting Meals on Wheels to deliver to an elderly tenant. On occasion, she even dons a ratty outfit to visit the projects at night and watch the street life. She also keeps in touch with police regularly.
And when she does see illegal activities, issuing the residents a warning, rather than beginning eviction proceedings, is her first response. "I say, 'I can't tell you what to do on the outside, but here, this is not permitted.'" Ironically, she doesn't seem to understand just how far her powers go. For instance, if she were across town and saw a resident taking drugs, she could call the police on them, then legally issue an eviction notice for the entire family without so much as a warning.
Based on her courteous attitude and her own background as a resident, I doubt Glover would wield her power with an autocratic zeal, but I have no idea whether she's really the norm. Even if she is -- even if compassionate property managers and their administrators use their discretion when deciding whether to enforce this one-strike eviction law -- there's another issue that underscores just how complicated enforcing the new law may be.
Is everyone in public housing vulnerable to eviction because, among the poor in inner-city life, drugs are already ubiquitous? In the back room at another local development, a young man who told me he does administrative work but asked that I not reveal his identity told me in hushed tones, pausing whenever anyone walked by, that he actually supports the law. His demeanor suggested that his opinions might not be popular with the tenants he serves.
Then I asked whether he knew even one family that had no connections -- no family members, cousins, friends, neighbors -- who might end up, while in possession of drugs, in their house.