Alice Carpenter hasn’t had a single problem with the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) in her 30 years as a resident of the city’s public housing. She says she’s always paid her rent on time and kept her place tidy—first at her three-bedroom unit at Stanton Dwellings and now at the four-bedroom row house in James Creek Dwellings that she shares with her daughter, Jacqueline, and two granddaughters.
But that unblemished record didn’t matter to the housing authority when Carpenter’s 16-year-old grandson, Jermel Carpenter, was arrested last September. Jermel was living with her when he took part in a shooting a few blocks away, says Carpenter. Police busted down her door the next morning and arrested Jermel for assault with a gun. He was tried and convicted for the crime and sent to Oak Hill Youth Detention Center in Laurel, Md. According to his mother, Jacqueline Carpenter, Jermel will stay there until he turns 21.
Alice Carpenter’s front door still has dents from the event. But that’s not the only lingering reminder of her grandson’s malfeasance. In February, she received an eviction notice from the housing authority, informing her that she and her family had 30 days to move out of the house they’d lived in for the past 10 years. The notice explained that the grandson’s arrest violated a paragraph in their lease agreement, which stipulated that tenants must “refrain from illegal or other activity which impairs the physical or social environment of the project.”
Carpenter and her daughter say they shouldn’t be blamed for Jermel’s criminal activities. They had already removed his name from the lease by the time the eviction notice arrived—and besides, he’s in detention and couldn’t come back even if the family let him. “He’s been off the lease,” says Jacqueline Carpenter. “Why are they still trying to throw us out? Because we got rid of him, and he’s the problem.”
But housing authority higher-ups didn’t care whether Jermel was off the lease or even off the streets. By their logic, the teen was the bad apple that would spoil the whole community—and in giving him a place to live, the Carpenters had forfeited their right to stay. When the Carpenters hadn’t left their residence by the eviction notice’s March deadline, the housing authority filed suit in D.C. Superior Court, seeking to remove the Carpenters from their home. The family’s first court date is set for Sept. 16.
The Carpenters’ eviction is just one small piece of fallout from a rigorous effort to purge public housing of criminal elements. Strengthened regulations under a hard-hitting DCHA receiver mean the agency is now more willing than in previous incarnations to evict allegedly crime-generating tenants. But in many cases, the agency doesn’t stop with the criminal in question; it proceeds to boot the whole family.
While no one’s quibbling with the idea of making public housing safer, the authority’s recent big-net eviction policy has drawn fire from lawyers and activists—not to mention folks like Alice Carpenter—who say the war on housing-project crime has turned some innocent residents into casualties. “The first thing that ever happened—and it wasn’t me, it was my grandson,” says Carpenter. “All those years I abided by those rules. They didn’t have a thing against me. And then they come with the eviction notice….I don’t know where I’ll go if they make me leave here.”
In a city where the waiting list for public housing numbers 11,000, getting into a unit isn’t easy. But for some families, the real challenge is staying there. Pro bono lawyers who handle housing cases say plenty of residents like the Carpenters are getting evicted—many of them not personally guilty of anything.
Vytas Vergeer, legal clinic director for Bread for the City and Zacchaeus Free Clinic, says cases in which families are evicted for the misdeeds of relatives used to be “pretty rare.” But in the last two years, lawyers at his clinics have started to see a case like this every two or three months. And Richard Crespo, senior staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, says that before the housing authority went into receivership, his organization used to get only one or two such cases a year. Now they get one a month.
The spate of evictions stems from the DCHA’s fresh look at long-standing federal laws and local regulations—most of which are vague as to exactly which offenses can get tenants kicked out of their homes. The D.C. Municipal Regulations section on public housing, for instance, says that tenants can be evicted for “[d]ocumentation of illegal activity which is creating or maintaining a threat to the health or safety of other tenants.” It’s a nebulous rule that could encompass anyone from a single tenant selling drugs inside the project to a mother whose teenager mugs someone a mile away. Federal regulations contain equally vague language.
Though the laws have been in place since the early ’90s, the local housing authority is only now paying any attention. “They’ve been on the books for a long time, but they’re using them now to change the population of public housing residents,” says Ann Marie Hay, executive director of D.C. Law Students in Court. Hay adds that housing authorities often “use them to evict the whole family when it’s only one member.”
Along with stepped-up enforcement of long-standing rules, drug and crime evictions have also been made more likely by newer regulations. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) just last year put the finishing touches on its “One strike and you’re out” directive, which requires housing authorities, like the DCHA, to deny access to or evict tenants because of serious criminal or drug-related activity, says HUD spokesperson Stan Vosper. “We make no apologies about being tough on the bad guys,” says Vosper.
Local policies have fallen into line with the feds’. Two years ago, the DCHA circulated a letter to all tenants, alerting them that the agency was going to take swift action on anyone violating lease agreements or local housing regulations, says housing authority receiver David Gilmore. The housing authority hired a law firm, Musolino & Dessel, to deal specifically with eviction cases. (The firm’s housing attorney could not be reached for comment.)
And even as the housing authority has beefed up its own legal muscle, it has also limited tenants’ ability to fight back. For most violations of lease agreements, tenants are given 30 days to remedy the situation—to, say, pay their overdue rent or ship that contraband pet off to a relative. Tenants can also file grievances with the agency if they believe they’ve been unfairly evicted. But in 1997, the DCHA eliminated the grievance option for tenants evicted over accusations of serious criminal activity or drug-related acts, says Gilmore. In those cases, tenants can do nothing to protest until the case goes through court proceedings.
The new policies have caused the number of evictions to swell, says DCHA spokesperson Arthur Jones. The eviction process was so “haphazard” and poorly monitored before 1997, says Jones, that the agency has no comprehensive record of evictions at that time. He’s certain the number was “very low” and hardly compares to the current rate. Since the DCHA implemented its strict eviction policies in 1997, the agency has evicted 419 tenants, 37 of those for drug-related or other serious criminal activity, says Jones.
Attorneys who represent tenants say the strengthened policies stack the deck against innocent family members, increasing the likelihood that tenants will be evicted even if they have nothing to do with crime. “It almost comes out like we’re saying we’re in favor of drugs and guns, and it’s not that,” says Karen Grisez, public service counsel at the law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, who also takes part in a pro bono clinic that handles public housing evictions. “It’s really about process, about looking at these people and seeing who is the wrongdoer.”
Vergeer says one of his clients was judged guilty by very tenuous association when she received a notice to vacate her unit at East Capitol Dwellings in mid-1997. The woman shared her home with a young son, but a nephew and other grown children were known to visit frequently. In November 1996, police searched her apartment on a warrant related to the nephew’s alleged drug activity, says Vergeer. When they found a sandwich bag full of marijuana, they made no arrest but forwarded the information to the DCHA—which mailed off an eviction notice, according to court files. (Vergeer and the DCHA eventually reached a compromise during court proceedings, allowing the woman to stay but barring her nephew and the other kids from ever setting foot on the property.)
Jones says the DCHA tries to look at each case individually, but adds that a lot of those “innocent” roommates of drug dealers are simply playing dumb. “Drug activity is something that attracts people to a complex that threatens a decent lifestyle. It is not to be tolerated,” says Jones. “If someone is going to cop a plea and say that she is the recognized and legal tenant and didn’t know there was open drug activity going on in a unit, that’s going to be hard to swallow.”
DCHA receiver Gilmore has never been called a softie. Soon after he was appointed in 1995, he beefed up housing authority security, adding a chief and several dozen officers to a squad that was soon rechristened the DCHA Police Department. Over the years, he’s collaborated with the Metropolitan Police Department and other local agencies to organize raids on public housing complexes, aiming to take out crime centers in one big sweep. Last June, Gilmore instituted a new public housing admissions policy. The new rules deny entry to applicants previously convicted of a felony or misdemeanor, or evicted from other public housing for drug-related or other criminal activity within the three years prior to application.
Gilmore says the efforts are meant to “change the profile of the residents of public housing.” And the strengthened eviction standards are only part of his notion of public housing as boot camp. “We wanted folks to know we were getting serious,” he says. “Evictions we do are aimed at those who violate the lease….It’s intended to rid the development of people who make other people’s lives miserable.”
He says that once an eviction case goes to trial, the DCHA tries to reach a compromise that will keep the tenants in their homes. “Whenever it’s possible, we’ll bar an individual member from the family….But if the perpetrator is found on the site again, that’s the end—they’re gone,” he says.
But Gilmore also says that in many cases, a compromise just isn’t feasible—and families have to take the hit for a relative’s crime. “There are going to be circumstances when the entire family has to pay the price of one member, because the family’s presence on that site is what brings that member to the site,” says Gilmore. “When a head of the household doesn’t pay rent, then everyone’s kicked out, even the little babies. I guess I would ask the question, Why should we treat serious criminal activity more leniently than nonpayment of rent?”
According to Gilmore, he’s coming from a different philosophical place than the lawyers who deal mainly with wronged individuals. “Common welfare is more important than the individual rights that may have to be given up by the family,” he says.
But attorneys concerned about Gilmore’s heavy-handed version of justice say they’re also looking for the common good. “Selling drugs in public housing is not a good situation, but having people evicted and [losing] their housing is not any better,” says Vergeer.
Sczerina Perot, staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, says that many attorneys are able to negotiate compromises for their clients and keep them in their homes. Alice Carpenter’s pro bono attorney, for instance, is currently negotiating to nullify her eviction notice. But tenants who don’t have the money or the motivation to seek legal counsel may not be so lucky. “I’m very worried about people who are unrepresented or just move out when those charges are brought against them,” says Perot.
The collateral damage to those public housing tenants who are evicted can be long-term, says Perot. Low-income housing is scarce in the District, and it becomes even harder to find if you have an eviction on your record. “What’s hard about these evictions is that there are these terrible ripple effects. If you’re evicted, you can be denied housing in the future,” she says. “I understand [Gilmore’s] point, but I also worry a great deal. We have walked away from low-income housing in the last few years….And at the same time we have these stricter laws.” CP