"One Strike" Cruelty of the High Court

Revolutionary Worker #1151, May 19, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org

The same Supreme Court that decided to make George Dubya Bush president has now upheld the "One Strike" (and you're out) law in public housing. There was no 5/4 split this time--it was unanimous.

On March 26, the Court found that local housing authorities have the power to evict tenants if someone on their lease or even a guest uses drugs or is caught anywhere in possession of drugs. The court decided that a Federal zero-tolerance drug policy in public housing is a legitimate way to protect residents from a "reign of terror" by drug dealers. It is not even necessary for the tenant to know that the other person is using or holding drugs.

The Supreme Court upheld the unlimited discretionary powers of local housing authorities to evict. As a result, the Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) was given the right to evict four elderly Black public housing residents from their homes.

The residents had broken no laws. Those evicted include a 75-year-old wheelchair-bound man whose caregiver was caught with cocaine, an elderly couple whose grandsons were caught smoking marijuana in the project's parking lot and a 63-year-old woman whose mentally disabled daughter was found with cocaine three blocks from their apartment. Note that all the arrests were for using, not even selling, drugs. Furthermore, this Federal law does not require conviction as a condition of eviction, only arrest.

This case reversed the decision of the California Federal Appeals Court that had ruled in favor of the tenants' suit, finding that Congress did not intend to allow evictions of innocent tenants and to rule differently would allow potentially absurd excesses. In the words of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, "There is an obvious reason why Congress would have permitted local public housing authorities to conduct no-fault evictions. A tenant who cannot control drug crime...is a threat to other residents and the project."

Public housing tenants are the only residents in this country held accountable in this way in the so- called war on drugs. Imagine if the families of everyone who used drugs were kicked out of their homes or denied mortgage interest deductions -- which is a major federal subsidy for housing. Jeb Bush, Governor of Florida and brother of President Dubya, lives in government-owned property, but of course there was no move to evict him when it was revealed that his daughter has a drug problem.

This contrast reveals not only the ugly class nature of this "way of life" called American democracy--and the sham of the whole war on drugs which has been nothing but a war on the people from its inception--but also the real purpose behind the eviction campaign in public housing projects.

In reality, these evictions are a powerful weapon for moving people out of public housing, a major goal of Federal and local government, as well as real estate moguls. And HUD regulations actually offer incentives for local housing authorities to evict in order to be eligible for funding. Evictions for drug use also have the extra benefit of placing the blame for homelessness and desperate poverty on those on the very bottom of society.

The Southside corridor in Chicago, a string of projects including Robert Taylor Homes (formerly the largest project in the country), and others like Stateway Gardens, is being especially targeted. There is no plan to replace any buildings along the corridor and already 20 buildings have been demolished in Robert Taylor. The demolitions include 5266 South State Street where RW readers may remember a determined battle was waged by residents, homeless squatters and supporters in 1999 before they were finally evicted more than 30 days after the deadline. 5201 South Federal where many of the displaced residents of 5266 moved, only to be forced out yet again, has also been demolished.

Over the last year one strike eviction notices were handed out like lollipops in several buildings in Taylor Homes. The police come through raiding apartments, terrorizing children, dragging the young men into empty apartments to inflict life-threatening beatings, and making arrests. Behind the cops, come the project managers dispensing 14-day notices of eviction. A number of lease-holders went to court to protest and some got short-term extensions and a few got their evictions reversed. Some facing evictions moved before the sheriffs came, usually crowding into a relative's already too-small apartment. Some people with nowhere to go were still there when their belongings were dragged into the hallways.

This scene described in a Chicago Tribune magazine article, "Where is Everyone Going?" by Alex Kotlowitz, author of There are No Children Here , describes what happened when one tenant was evicted. "Ironically, it was the tattered remains of Hull's community that came to her assistance. The day of her eviction, a neighbor came by and removed the screws on the grate covering her kitchen window. Later that afternoon, after her door had been nailed shut, Hull removed the grate and crawled back into the apartment. Another neighbor helped her move the furniture back in. After she got the door working again, a janitor on his own time fixed her lock, which had been made inoperable during the eviction... Last summer the CHA vacated Hull's building and began demolition. Hull and her three youngest children have since been living off the generosity of family and friends... They have also spent nights at the Greyhound bus station..."

In 1996 when this law was passed there were nine one-strike evictions. According to Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) statistics, in 2001 nearly 400 CHA families were thrown out of their homes, 119 of them one-strike evictions. And now the U.S. Supreme Court has given an unqualified green light to these efforts and undercut the legal defense a tenant might argue.

Chicago has more public housing than any other U.S. city, but these outrageous evictions are being carried out across the country from Oakland to Atlanta. In Washington, D.C. two long-time public housing advocates were forced out on one-strike evictions. In Seaside, Oregon, where housing authorities have a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and violence, a woman was served with eviction papers when she filed for a temporary restraining order after being assaulted by her husband.

Evicted for being beaten! This is a perfect picture of the nature of this cruel Supreme Court decision, and the whole punishing atmosphere in the U.S. 2002--where those who have been oppressed and beaten down by the system are punished for it again and again.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)