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Innocent Elderly Tenants Evicted From Public Housing For Others' Drug Violations


March-April 1998

Nationwide, authorities are evicting innocent elderly tenants from public housing because visitors or relatives of the tenants allegedly violate drug laws (Peter Katel, "Elderly caught in drug evictions," USA Today, April 9, 1998, p. 3A; Michelle Locke, "Older Tenants Decry Drug Laws," San Diego Union Tribune, April 3, 1998).

On March 28, 1996, President Clinton signed the law known as "one strike and you're out,"a provision of the Housing Opportunity Program Extension Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-120; 110 Stat. 834). "One strike and you're out" allows public housing tenants to be evicted for the offenses, sometimes noncriminal, of others, and speed up evictions in alleged drug cases, bypassing the requirement of a pre-eviction hearing ("Entitlement of Tenants to Occupancy," 24 CFR 247.3). The Clinton Administration ordered local housing authorities nationwide to apply the expulsion standards or face a reduction in federal funding or even a federal takeover (White House, "Memorandum on the "One Strike and You're Out" Guidelines," March 28, 1996).

The policy took effect in most cities in mid-1996. In the first six months, evictions rose 84% over the previous six months, according to a U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development Department survey ("One Strike: Meeting the Challenge -- Public Housing Authorities Respond to the 'One Strike and You're Out' Initiative," U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Public and Indian Housing, September 1997).

"It's not fair at all," says Herman Walker, a stroke victim who is fighting to stay in his one-bedroom, $165-a-month Oakland, CA apartment. Three months ago, he was ordered to leave after his home health-care attendant and a friend of hers were arrested for possessing crack cocaine in Walker's apartment. An Oakland Housing Authority lawyer says police reports show that Walker knew that drugs were being used in his apartment, but Walker denies the allegation. Walker said he welcomed the police search that led to the arrest of his attendant.

Walker, 75, is suing the Oakland Housing Authority in federal court. Joining him are three elderly women facing eviction based on street-corner drug possession arrests of their children or grandchildren. The lawsuit contends that all four evictions violate federal housing law and the First Amendment freedom of association.

Challenges to evictions have been mounted mostly by the elderly, including public housing tenants in New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Boston. The most far-reaching legal challenge to "one strike" evictions came in Chicago. A class-action lawsuit, filed in 1996 by the Legal Assistance Foundation, led to a settlement limiting evictions to tenants who "knew or reasonably should have known" about the conduct of a household member or visitor. The Oakland anti-eviction lawsuit argues for that same standard.

"The one-strike policy gives public housing authorities a great deal of flexibility to take decisions on case-by-case basis," said HUD spokesman Alex Sachs. Eviction defense attorneys agree. "They'll steamroll people without lawyers," says Andrew Thompson of the Legal Aid Society of Washington, D.C. But Oakland Assistant City Attorney Randolph Hall said housing officials order only evictions they can defend in court. "We don't just bring these cases on the basis of the policy," he says. "We bring them because we believe there are facts sufficient for us to establish that there has been an evictable offense."

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - Malcolm "Mike" Main, 451 7th St., SW, Washington, DC 20410, Tel: (202) 708-1197 ext. 4232, E-mail: <>.