Last week, the California federal district court struck down a severe public housing eviction law that has been the bane of residents for more than a decade. Under the national “one-strike” rule, if a tenant’s relatives or friends are caught with even a small amount of drugs, he or she can be summarily evicted. Congress enacted this law, designed to curb drug dealing in the projects, in 1988, but housing authorities began to enforce it more aggressively in the late 1990s.
The California court case was brought on behalf of several elderly plaintiffs in Oakland’s public housing projects who were facing eviction. Two of the plaintiffs were grandparents who were about to be thrown out because their grandchildren had been caught smoking marijuana together in the parking lot.
In the split decision, the judges slammed the law, calling it “irrational” and “unjust” that innocent tenants should be punished for minor drug crimes committed by others without their knowledge.
In the projects, wrote Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, “Innocent tenants live barricaded behind doors, in fear for their safety and the safety of their children. What these tenants may not realize is that, under existing policies of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, they should add another fear to their list: becoming homeless if a household member or guest engages in criminal drug activity on or off the tenant’s property.”
The decision, handed down by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, covers millions of tenants in California and other Western states. It has no direct impact on how the rule is enforced by the New York City Housing Authority, which is the landlord for more than 600,000 tenants. Indirectly, though, the decision is quite significant, explained Scott Rosenberg, Director of Litigation for the Civil Appeals Law Reform Unit of the Legal Aid Society.
“The reasoning of the ninth circuit is persuasive,” said Rosenberg. “Because the courts held that Congress did not intend housing authorities to be authorized to evict innocent tenants, and because it’s a persuasive decision, it is likely to be followed by the courts in New York.”
Rosenberg pointed out that tenants here already are somewhat shielded from the law, thanks to a lawsuit that established a separate hearing procedure for tenants on the verge of eviction. But the California court decision will give tenants “an additional argument in their arsenal of arguments” against one-strike drug evictions.