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Deborah Colvin knows a thing or two about the need for Section 8 housing subsidy recipients to be responsible—she used to be one. Now she’s on the other side of the ledger, renting out two apartments in a Quebec Place NW rowhouse to tenants who receive government subsidies through the Section 8 voucher program. And so, she says, she’s particularly frustrated when her tenants can’t seem to hold up their end of the deal.

“I did what I was supposed to do, moved through college, and now I’m a provider,” Colvin says. “So I know the benefits of accountability.”

Not all of her tenants do, it seems. Colvin complains of a recent “terrible, terrible problem tenant who was using drugs, destroyed my property, and so on.” Colvin contacted the D.C. Housing Authority in hopes of evicting the tenant and getting reimbursed for the property damage; instead, the Housing Authority gave the tenant a transfer voucher to move to other housing. “And onward she goes to the next landlord to terrorize,” Colvin says.

Or take another Section 8 voucher tenant, who according to Carol Blumenthal, an attorney who represents D.C. landlords, shot a child who lived next door in an apartment building owned by a client of Blumenthal’s. The alleged shooter, Blumenthal says, is awaiting trial, but in the meantime the landlord is unable to evict the tenant, and other neighbors with children are trying to move away out of fear.

Then there was the Section 8 voucher participant who invited all his neighbors to a party, then locked them in a room and robbed them, according to a city official who was not authorized to speak on the record. The tenant was arrested and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. But the Housing Authority’s rules didn’t allow the agency to terminate the tenant’s participation, and as long as the Housing Authority agency was subsidizing his rent, the landlord couldn’t easily evict him—even though the landlord was unable to rent out other units once people had heard of the crime.

Meanwhile, the waiting list for public housing and subsidy vouchers in D.C. is about 70,000 names long—so long, in fact, that the Housing Authority stopped adding people to the list in April. According to the Housing Authority, the wait list includes nearly 40,000 families with children, 19,000 senior citizens, and 43,000 people with disabilities. (There’s some overlap between the categories.) Surely, those people in desperate need of housing should not be denied it because it’s excessively difficult to get rid of current voucher holders who are a menace to their neighbors.

And so last month, the Housing Authority’s board of commissioners voted to change the rules and make it easier to boot tenants from the program. Now, the Housing Authority will be able to kick people out for misdemeanors and other infractions that previously weren’t covered by the agency’s guidelines.

“We know that there are a lot of grandmothers and disabled people and families with children on the waiting list who are prepared to abide by the rules and laws of the District of Columbia,” says Housing Authority spokesman Rick White. “And we want to be sure that those who are prepared to follow the rules are able to access the housing we have available.”

But the new changes may have gone too far. The Housing Authority can now kick out voucher holders for misdemeanor arrests, even if there’s been no conviction and the crime is a minor drug offense. That means families who are reliant on vouchers could be put out on the street for something as harmless as first-time marijuana possession.

“They’ve now made it so that a single misdemeanor arrest for a drug-related charge could result in being terminated,” says Misty Thomas, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, who maintains that outside of this one area of disagreement, the Housing Authority has been receptive to housing advocates’ ideas. “So you may not have been convicted of the crime, you may have sought treatment. That’s a pretty low bar.”

This summer, as the Housing Authority was contemplating the change, Thomas and other advocates for low-income Washingtonians, including representatives of Bread for the City and the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, wrote a letter to the agency raising concerns about the move. “We understand that [the Housing Choice Voucher Program] needs the authority to terminate families that are bad actors,” the advocates wrote. “However, we believe that the proposed regulations are too broad and will result in the termination of families that are most vulnerable and most in need.”

Their primary concern involved drug charges. Before the rule change, the Housing Authority could only terminate participants for felony drug convictions. Allowing termination for misdemeanor arrests (even without a conviction), the advocates wrote, is “far more punitive” than the District’s overall stance toward misdemeanor drug crimes, which prioritizes rehabilitation over punishment.

The policy change is also likely to have an unequal racial impact. A recent study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that a black D.C. resident is eight times more likely than a white one to be arrested for marijuana possession—more than twice the average discrepancy in America—even though black and white people in the U.S.* smoke pot at about the same rate. Marijuana possession accounted for nearly half of all drug arrests in D.C. in 2010.

The rule change, however, is in line with policies undertaken by other major U.S. cities, and with the “one strike, you’re out” law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. And a drug arrest still doesn’t mean automatic expulsion. First, the Housing Authority’s Office of Public Safety must make a recommendation of termination; then, the termination must be approved by the head of the Housing Choice Voucher Program, who’s appointed by the Housing Authority’s executive director. A participant can appeal the termination, first to the head of the voucher program, then to a hearing officer, and finally to the executive director.

White dismisses concerns over the fact that a mere arrest, rather than a conviction, is now sufficient grounds for termination. “This isn’t about conviction, this is about accountability,” White says. “And if there’s criminal activity going on, we don’t want to contribute in any way to it. And by subsidizing someone’s rents, we’re contributing to them being in that neighborhood.”

To critics of the rule change, of course, this raises some red flags. Our criminal justice system, however imperfect, is designed to establish guilt or innocence. A second, extralegal penal system within the Housing Authority to determine whether a person has been engaged in criminal activity is unlikely to match the scrutiny and transparency as the courts, but it will still be able to remove people from government-supported housing—sometimes for life.

The new rules also allow the Housing Authority to circumvent the typical process for eviction in the District, which has some of the most tenant-friendly laws in the country. Generally, if a tenant is not living up to his end of the lease, the landlord must give 30-day notice before filing suit to evict. Then it’s often another month before the case actually goes to court, at which point the tenant can request a jury trial. The full process can drag on for as long as a year.

The Housing Authority will be able to move more expeditiously. Thirty-day notice is still required, but after that, the Housing Authority can terminate a tenant’s participation in the voucher program immediately if he or she does not request a hearing; if the tenant does, the process can wrap up as quickly as a month later. Even some housing advocates agree that the Housing Authority should have more latitude than the average landlord to expel unruly tenants, since taxpayers are subsidizing their rent. The question is whether the new rules go too far in allowing termination for minor arrests.

The altered, speedier process for kicking out voucher participants can be a boon to a landlord trying to evict a problem tenant; while the landlord still has to take the case to court, it’s an easier case to make after the Housing Authority has already deemed the tenant deficient and cut off his subsidy. It can also be a blessing for families on the waiting list who are able to move into units formerly occupied by now-evicted bad actors.

But for a family that’s reliant on the voucher program, the policy change can mean the difference between stable housing and the streets if a family member is caught with a joint. The verdict on such a family’s fate now rests with the Housing Authority. It’s not a decision that should be made lightly.

* Correction: Due to an editing error, this post originally summarized the findings of an ACLU report incorrectly. The report said black and white people use marijuana at about the same rates nationally, but didn’t give local data for D.C.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery