Sign-on Letter to the House Financial Services Housing and Community Opportunity Subcommittee on The Protection of Innocent Tenants

Document Date: June 17, 2002

Re: H.R. 3995; Support Rep. Lee’s Innocent Tenant Amendment

Dear Chairwoman Roukema and Members of the Subcommittee:

We, the undersigned organizations, write to ask that you support Rep. Barbara Lee’s amendment to H.R. 3995, which would protect innocent tenants of public and assisted housing from being unfairly evicted based on the wrongdoing of others. Under federal law, tenants can be evicted if a guest or family member engages in drug or other criminal activity, including alleged activity that occurs away from public housing premises. In March 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the law as allowing the eviction of “innocent tenants” – those who know nothing about the criminal activity and those who have done all they can to prevent such activity.

Public housing authorities have failed to use common sense in exercising their discretion to evict under federal housing law. Among the innocent tenants who have been ousted are disabled seniors who knew nothing about the alleged criminal activity and victims of domestic violence who the system failed to protect. These vulnerable persons lose their homes as well as their housing assistance, effectively rendering them homeless in communities where affordable housing is scarce.

Not only are such innocent-tenant evictions unconscionable and contrary to the federal policy to end homelessness, they are counterproductive. Tenants are much more likely to act on their own and with law enforcement to protect themselves, their families, and neighbors from drug and other criminal activity if they can do so without the threat of eviction. As the law presently stands, a tenant reporting drug activity by a guest and a woman reporting abuse by her spouse could face eviction.

In returning due process and common sense to the one-strike eviction policy, Rep. Barbara Lee’s amendment properly balances the needs of public housing authorities and the rights of the innocent. Just like recent reforms in the area of civil asset forfeiture, this legislation would require that authorities consider personal culpability before imposing penalties on uninvolved parties. Housing authorities would still have the discretion to evict wrongdoers who threaten tenant safety and those who turn a blind eye to criminal conduct by guests and household members.

We urge you to support Rep. Lee’s amendment to H.R. 3995 and help ensure that law-abiding public housing and federally assisted tenants do not lose their homes when they have done nothing wrong or when they themselves are the victims of crimes.

Laura Murphy
Director, ACLU Washington National Office

Michael Allen
Senior Staff Attorney, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

E. Joshua Rosenkranzz
President & CEO, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law

Susan Hegel
Staff Attorney, Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services

Tom Schwider
Steering Committee Member, Catholic Voices for Economic Justice

Ed Williams
President, Every and Now Public Housing Residents Organizing Nationally Together (ENPHRONT)

Esta Soler
President, Family Violence Prevention Fund

Wade Henderson
Executive Director, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

Shannan Wilber
Executive Director, Legal Services for Children

Susan Rees
Director of Research and Policy, McAuley Institute

Elaine R. Jones
President and Director-Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Irwin Schwartz
President, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

William P. Wilen
Housing Advocacy Supervisor, National Center on Poverty Law

Juley Fulcher
Public Policy Director, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Gideon Anders
Director, National Housing Law Project

Scott Wallace
Director, Defender Legal Services, National Legal Aid and Defender Association

Sheila Crowley
President, National Low Income Housing Coalition

Lynn Rosenthal
Executive Director, National Network to End Domestic Violence

Lisa M. Maatz
Vice President of Government Relations, NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund