Archives

Written by Beth Harrison

Sep 09

2011

Harsh Consequences of “One Strike” Policy Exposed in a Recent New York Times Article

Beth Harrison, Supervising Attorney & Director, Court Based Legal Services Project

Legal Aid’s Housing Unit sometimes represents tenants living in subsidized housing who are facing eviction and/or the loss of their housing subsidy under the federal “one strike” policy.  Federal law prohibits tenants from engaging in criminal activity that disturbs others, including any violent or drug-related criminal activity, on or near a subsidized housing property.  The policy applies to misdemeanors as well as felonies, regardless of whether any criminal charges were ever pursued or won.  The tenant is responsible for not only her own actions but also the actions of her household members and guests, even if she is not personally involved in any activity, does not know about it, and could not have prevented it.  The policy is truly “one strike and you’re out”:  a tenant can be evicted and lose her housing subsidy, even if she personally is innocent and offers to bar the offender. 

As you might imagine, the one strike policy can have particularly harsh consequences for our clients.  To cite one common scenario, because a young adult son possesses marijuana on the property, his mother and the rest of the family can lose their apartment and their subsidy.  Since the waiting lists for subsidized housing in D.C. are measured in terms of years rather than months, the loss of a federal housing subsidy can be devastating for a low-income family. 

Last Sunday, the New York Times published an article examining the implementation of the one strike policy by the Chicago Housing Authority.  Among the findings it reported:  86 percent of cases from 2010 had nothing to do with the primary leaseholder; 76 percent of cases that year were misdemeanors; and in the majority of cases, the defendants were found not guilty, their cases were thrown out, or they were never prosecuted.  Legal Aid has observed similar trends in the application of the one strike policy in D.C.

Apr 29

2010

Sweeping Public Nuisance Law Threatens the Rights of DC Residents

D.C.. City Councilmembers Jim Graham and Jack Evans, supported by the Attorney General, the U.S. Attorney, and the Metropolitan Police Department, have introduced a sweeping proposal to create a public nuisance law in the District, authorizing broad injunctive relief to abate or enjoin "public nuisances."  The Neighborhood and Victims' Rights Amendment Act of 2009, B18-595, defines "public nuisance" broadly to include "anything that threatens the health, safety, quiet enjoyment of life or property, or security of any considerable number of reasonable persons in a defined geographic area."  The Attorney General, the U.S. Attorney, or any community-based organization – which could include any group of persons organized on behalf of a community – could file suit seeking an order to enjoin or abate the nuisance.  The bill authorizes preliminary injunctive relief without a showing of irreparable harm and removes any right to a jury trial. 

Legal Aid offered oral and written testimony in opposition to the bill at a public hearing before the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary on April 19, expressing several concerns about the bill as written.  First, the law is drafted so broadly that virtually any dispute between private citizens, including landlord-tenant and tenant-tenant issues, could become swept up in this process, potentially eviscerating the District's carefully-calibrated landlord-tenant laws.  This concern is heightened by the fact that any community-based organization could file suit and obtain sweeping injunctive relief – potentially including an order for an individual to vacate their home – on 10 days' notice without a showing of irreparable harm.  Based on the experiences of our colleagues across the country in jurisdictions that have adopted public nuisance statutes, one group of vulnerable citizens who can become caught up in such laws are survivors of domestic violence, whose calls to the police and efforts to ward off their abusers can be viewed as creating a "nuisance."  We also noted that the removal of the right to trial by jury, at least in cases involving the right to possession of real property, arguably is unconstitutional.  Legal Aid urged the Council not to rush to judgment and to consider amendments that would limit the far-reaching scope of the current proposal.