One Strike: Jennie Williams Part II

Jennie Williams with granddaughter

On May 29, some nine months after her arrest on August 29, 2001, Jennie Williams was evicted from her apartment at Stateway Gardens. She was evicted, although the criminal case arising from the events of August 29 is still in progress. The eviction cost her not only her home in a community where she has lived for more than twenty years, it also cost her the benefits of lease compliance under the CHA’s Plan for Transformation—a Section 8 voucher and the opportunity to return to the mixed income development to be built at Stateway. In the course of the eviction case, her claim that she was the victim of police misconduct was never heard and considered by the judge.

Assuming the veracity of Jennie’s account, it would be comforting to believe this outcome was produced by a malfunction of an otherwise workable system. Experience at Stateway and elsewhere, however, suggests the more disturbing possibility that what happened to Jennie is a common rather than exceptional outcome. In One-Strike cases the criminal law and civil law operate on their own terms and in their own spheres. No one is accountable for the results; no one is responsible for adding up the sanctions. But for the One-Strike defendant, criminal and civil law are braided together into a single system—a system that might have been designed, in collaboration, by Rube Goldberg and Franz Kafka.

That is the system Jennie Williams has been trying to understand and navigate since August 29, when she stepped out to visit a friend and encountered the police.

Since last fall, she has been juggling court appearances—the drug case in criminal court and the eviction case in housing court. “It’s confusing,” she said. “So many court dates.”

As many public housing residents do, Jennie made the common sense assumption that if she prevailed in her drug case, the eviction case would necessarily be resolved. She hired a lawyer to represent her in the criminal case. While she didn’t neglect the eviction case, she gave it less priority.

“I wasn’t worried about it [the eviction case], cause I know the police was wrong. I know it’s up to me and the police and the judge. I had my faith.”

That faith may have been misplaced. At every stage, she has been frustrated in her efforts to be heard.

10 Day Notice

When she received a 10-day notice—the document that initiates the eviction process—she went to the management office to try to explain what had happened. They told her that there was nothing they could do; it was out of their hands. They had no discretion in the matter.

She then attempted to secure representation in the eviction case from the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago [LAF]. She met with a lawyer and left the meeting thinking that the lawyer would appear on her behalf at her first court date on January 3. Neither the lawyer nor Jennie appeared in court. Jennie returned to the lawyer who, she says, instructed her on how to file the neccesary motion. It was granted by the judge presiding in her case, Judge Jane L. Stuart. Thereafter Jennie tried repeatedly to contact the lawyer but never received a call back.(On the day she received a letter informing her that the judge had entered an eviction order in her case and that the sheriff could come at any time, she also received a letter from the LAF lawyer stating that she had been unable to reach Jennie at the phone number she had provided.)

So Jennie was left to manage the eviction case on her own. Judge Stuart set the next court date for March 12. On that date, Jennie was present, but the police failed to appear. Judge Stuart continued the case to April 2. Because she is illiterate, Jennie is dependent on others to read documents to her. In this instance, she confused the date. She thought her next court date was on April 12 rather than April 2.

On April 2, the police appeared in court. Jennie did not. The police testified that on August 21, they arrested her for possession of drugs in her apartment. No counter-evidence was offered. The judge entered a judgment for the CHA and ordered Jennie evicted.

Several days later, the police who arrested Jennie on August 29 appeared at her door. Jennie wasn’t there. They told her daughter-in-law to tell her she had been evicted.

On April 12, Jennie arrived at the courtroom at the appointed time and found another judge presiding. Realizing her mistake, she sought the advice of a member of the Stateway management staff who advised her to file a motion to reopen the case. With assistance of the help desk on the sixth floor at the Daley Center, Jennie filed a motion pro se (i.e., on her own behalf) to vacate the order to evict. The affidavit she submitted outlined allegations of police misconduct.

The lawyers for the property management company strongly opposed her motion. “They said I was playing games.” Judge Stuart denied the motion.

CHA Notice

At the suggestion of Kate Walz of the National Center on Poverty Law, I put Jennie in contact with Christine Farrell of the Cabrini Green Legal Aid Clinic who agreed to make an emergency appeal on her behalf.

We had an extended meeting with Ms. Farrell during which Jennie demonstrated great command of detail with respect to the two legal proceedings she is involved in. When I remarked on this, she replied, “I have to remember it all, because I can’t write it down.”

Ms. Farrell noted that often when police misconduct is alleged, there are no witnesses and the defendant’s testimony is assumed to be self-serving. In Jennie’s case, however, others saw that she was under arrest and was being forced to knock on doors in 3651-53 South Federal—among them, the woman whose apartment the police searched. Also, residents living on Jennie’s floor in 3547 South Federal are prepared to testify that the police made no arrest on August 29 at her apartment.

Jennie thus had a strong case, said Ms. Farrell. The challenge would be to get the court to hear that case.

After listening to Ms. Farrell sketch the arguments she planned to make, Jennie said of her own efforts to be heard, “That’s what I tried to tell judge, but she wouldn’t let me.”

Ms. Farrell was particularly bothered by the fact that she routinely appears before Judge Stuart to make the same motion Jennie made and has it granted, while Jennie presenting the motion pro se was denied.

I asked Doran Harper, the manager at Stateway Gardens, to instruct the attorneys for the management company not to rise objections to the emergency motion to vacate. He told me that managers had no discretion in One Strike matters and referred me to Brenda Parker, the CHA asset manager for Stateway. Ms. Parker in turn arranged a conference call with Stephanie Horton, the CHA lawyer who oversees One Strike cases. Ms. Horton agreed to direct the attorneys to stay eviction pending the outcome of the appeal, on the condition that I cover any costs associated with staying the eviction, which I agreed to do.

On May 16, Judge Stuart heard Ms. Farrell’s emergency motion to vacate. The attorneys for the management company again objected to reopening the case. Judge Stuart denied the motion.

Emerging from the courtroom, Ms. Farrell was as upset as Jennie.

“Every time I tried to say that there were merits of the case that need to be heard, the judge stopped me,” she reported.

The motion having been denied, Jennie’s eviction went to the top of the pile. The net effect of our efforts to intervene may well have been to accelerate her eviction.

Several days later, I asked Jennie how she was doing.

“I’m scared, and I’m tired. My hair is coming out. It ain’t fair, when I know I didn’t do anything wrong.”

On the morning of May 29, the sheriff evicted Jennie. I saw her later in the day. She had been weeping.

“I’ve been crying all day,” she said. “I’m hurtin’. I hate this. What they’re doin’ is wrong.”

Jennie has put her belongings in storage and is staying with one of her sisters in Englewood. She comes back to Stateway almost every day.

Ms. Farrell has initiated an appeal in the Illinois Appellate Court.

In a recent conversation, Jennie recalled her mother’s courage—how she had fought for her rights in the Mississippi Delta during the civil rights movement.

“She was marching down there. She’d get locked up for her rights. She’d rebuild and they’d burn her house back down again and tear up her land.”

“So she kept fighting for her home in the South, and now you’re fighting to keep your home here,” I suggested.

“It’s about the same, isn’t it?” she said tentatively. “You kinda wonder if there’s a connection.”

One Strike: Jennie Williams Part I

Jennie Williams standing by her apartment window.

A small, wiry woman of great intensity, Jennie Williams has lived at the Stateway Gardens public housing development for twenty-two of her forty-six years. For the last two years, she has lived in 3547 South Federal. For the previous twenty, she lived in 3617 South Federal—the first building at Stateway to be demolished. I got to know her in 1998 in the midst of the residents’ unsuccessful struggle to save their building.

Jennie is illiterate yet lives through language. Two years ago, she expressed her indignation at the prospect of being forced from her home with fierce, rapid-fire eloquence.

“I’m used to where I’m at. We’ve been living in this rat hole for—what?—twenty years. No matter what it look like, it’s home to us. A lot of people get sick and die, when they leave this building. Who wants to meet new friends, when you got old ones? People should never be less important than money. We’re not fucking animals. They may got all the money in the world, but they can’t buy my life.”

The words “they can’t buy my life” have a particular resonance coming from Jennie who grew up at one remove from slavery in the Mississippi Delta as one of thirteen children in a sharecropper family. Her mother, Savannah Williams, worked on the plantation of a man named Philpot. The Williams family was particularly prized by Philpot because it was so large.

“We used to pick cotton. Even the little ones. Philpot would say, ‘If they can walk, they can pick.’” From Jennie’s perspective as a little girl, the cotton fields stretching to the horizon seemed “never-ending.”

“Picking cotton is hard in the hot sun. Sometimes it be so hot that people fainted. From five in the morning to four in the evening, mama worked. And she had us there with her. She’d set the baby on the sack. And she was pregnant too. It was hard for her.”

Savannah Williams, according to her daughter, “wanted to be on her own—to do her own work, to plant her own things.” With the help of her first husband who was working as a crane operator in Chicago, she acquired some land and built a house.

“We had our own little home. Mama owned the land. We had cows and pigs. We growed corn, tomatoes, okra, cabbage, greens. We didn’t have to go to no store, unless we needed salt or pepper or flour. The rest of the stuff we didn’t need, cause we had it. But they ran us off.”

“Who?”

“The Ku Klux Klan, we called them, with masks on their faces and sheets. They burned our house down and our crops.”

The Red Cross and local churches provided relief and shelter for families burned out by the Klan. Jennie remembers sleeping on “a bed made of sticks” (a cot) in a barn that had been converted into a shelter. The family also stayed for a time in a house made of pegboard—until it blew away. The screen door was the only thing left standing. She laughed at the memory.

The Klan raids forced Savannah and her children back to Philpot’s plantation. “He would tell my mother, ‘You my slave.’ We were all his slaves.”

Savannah could read and write. “In those days, they had to sneak and read. The white man wouldn’t let us read. They’d whup you for that.” With a note of pride, Jennie told me that her mother wrote letters to President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King about the conditions the family was living under in Mississippi.

Jennie first went to jail when she was three years old. She was riding on her mother’s shoulders when Savannah was arrested for participating in a civil rights demonstration in Jackson. “We were marching down the street with signs. And we were singing.” Smiling broadly, she recited the words of one of the freedom songs:

We’re gonna keep on walking and keep on talking Marching to freedom land. Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.

The Williams family was carried north by the last desperate wave of the Great Migration. “We escaped in the night and came on the train to Chicago.” The year was 1967. (“Martin Luther King was killed the next year.”) Jennie was eleven years old. Her first impressions of Chicago remain sharp and immediate. In the train station she encountered an escalator for the first time. “I was shocked. I didn’t know what it was. Oooo, I can’t get on that. Where’s it goin’ to take me?”

Savannah and her children stayed with other family members who had preceded them to Chicago in a crowded apartment on Lake Park Avenue. Then in 1970 they moved to the Robert Taylor Homes—to a fifteenth floor apartment in 4950 South State.

Savannah worked as a domestic. As they had worked beside their mother in the cotton fields, in the city the older children helped her clean other people’s homes.

In 1973, six years after shepherding her family to Chicago, Savannah Williams died. She was 48 years old. I asked Jennie the cause of death. “They say it was cancer,” she replied. “I say it was a lot of worry.”

Jennie was behind in school, when she arrived in Chicago. Between the demands of the cotton fields and the turbulent times in the Delta, “it was hard for us to go to school in Mississippi.” When she entered the Chicago public school system, she was placed in a grade according to her age rather than her learning level. “That’s why I never learned nothing. They didn’t even try to help me.”

By 1974, she had dropped out of school. She gave birth to a son she named Davis in 1978 and to another she named Edward in 1979. In 1980 the family moved into Stateway Gardens. In 1981 Jennie gave birth to a daughter she named Janet. At 18 months old, Janet fell to her death from a window in Jennie’s fourteenth floor apartment in 3617 South Federal. (As a result of such incidents, the CHA is now required to maintain child guards on the windows.)

“That was the hardest period of my life. I couldn’t accept she was gone. For two or three years, I was seeing things. I thought she was still here. My head was messed up. I couldn’t think.”

Jennie’s sense of home encompasses tragedy. On the eve of the closing of 3617 South Federal, she told me, “This is my building. I growed up in it, and my kids growed up in it, and my daughter died in it. If they tear it down, they’re tearing out some part of me.”

Jennie Williams and neighbors standing in front of the ruins of 3615-17 South Federal.Jennie Williams (rear, left) and neighbors in front of the ruins of 3615-17 South Federal in the spring of 2001.

Today the site of 3615-17 South Federal—once the home of 230 families—is a large vacant lot at the center of the development. On the evening of August 29, 2001, Jennie walked across that open expanse to visit friends in 3651-53 South Federal. She could see, as she approached, that the police were in the building. Several police vehicles were parked outside. The grounds and lobby were deserted. “If people ain’t around, you know the police is in the building.” When she entered the lobby, she saw half a dozen plainclothes officers. One of them called out to her, “I want you to do me a favor.” He asked her to knock on doors so they could gain entrance without announcing that they were the police.

Jennie refused. They handcuffed her and patted her down. (“They touched me everywhere.”) They told her they were going to charge her with criminal trespassing—for visiting a neighboring building in the community where she has lived for more than twenty years. They would let her go, they said, if she would knock on doors for them. With great misgivings (“people get funny, if you come to their door with the police”), she agreed.

They took her to the fourth floor, removed the handcuffs, and directed her to knock on a particular door. One of the officers suggested she say she wanted to borrow some butter or sugar. No one answered her knock. They put the handcuffs back on and took her to the ninth floor. Again, they removed the handcuffs and directed her to a particular door: 909.

She knocked.

“Who is it?” a child’s voice asked.

“Jennie from next door. Is your mama home?”

A woman opened the door, and the police pushed their way in. They handcuffed Jennie and placed her on the sofa, while they searched the apartment. Jennie didn’t know the woman. She could see how upset she was.

“I seen the way she was lookin’ at me like she wanted to holler at me. I hate what I did. I was wrong.”

Jennie refused to knock on any more doors. “One of them slapped me and called me a ‘black bitch.’ ‘You shoulda did it,’ he told me. ‘Now you really goin’ to jail.'”

While she was standing handcuffed in the corridor, one of the officers urinated in front of her. “They treated me like I ain’t nothing. They made it all a joke. I didn’t think it was funny. I was upset and scared, cause I didn’t know what they were thinking of doing next.”

The police then took her to the 15th floor where “they busted out the lights and knocked in the door to an apartment.” No one was there. And they didn’t find anything.

Jennie spent three days in jail. She assumed she had been charged with criminal trespassing for visiting 3651-53 South Federal. Weeks later when the management company delivered a 10-day notice to her, she was surprised to discover that she had been charged with possession of drugs in her apartment in 3547 South Federal.

One Strike Discussion on WBEZ

Pat Evans and son

“The first One-Strike case I encountered at Stateway was a woman whose 16 year old son [Pat Evans and her son Arthur, pictured above] was getting caught up at the margins of the drug trade. She was heroic in addressing this. She was staying up all night to keep him from going out. She went head to head with gang leaders to say, “This is not your boy, this is my boy.” She was on top of that kid; she was monitoring him; she was in his face. She participated in a demonstration of mothers marching between two warring buildings at Stateway during a gang war. The “innocent tenant” or the “lack of knowledge” defense wasn’t available to her, because she had knowledge. She was a conscientious, concerned parent trying to do right by her child and her community. She was one of the first people evicted at Stateway under One-Strike. The conditions in her building—the drug dealing in the lobby—she wasn’t responsible for that. The lack of effective law enforcement—she wasn’t responsible for that. But the failures of these public institutions and the costs incurred by those failures got passed on to her.”

—Jamie Kalven on WBEZ, June 21, 2001

On June 21, “Eight Forty-Eight” [WBEZ, 91.5 FM] broadcast a discussion of the One-Strike eviction policy. Host Steve Edwards was joined by Stephanie Horton of the Chicago Housing Authority, Katherine Walz of the National Center on Poverty Law, and Jamie Kalven of The View From The Ground. Listen to their conversation here.

One Strike: Introduction

On March 26, the United States Supreme Court upheld the so-called “One Strike and You’re Out” provisions of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 under which public housing tenants may be evicted for criminal or “drug-related” activity by any household member or guest, even when that activity takes place outside the apartment and without the tenant’s knowledge. The decision—HUD v. Rucker—was widely reported and discussed across the country. Yet the actual workings of the One-Strike law remain a matter of persisting confusion for public housing residents—and for many others.

Several weeks after Rucker was handed down, the Chicago Tribune reported that Terry Peterson, the chief executive officer of the Chicago Housing Authority, “said his agency has been evicting residents on a case-by-case basis. Only people who are convicted are asked to leave, he added.”

In fact, under the One-Strike policy, the CHA, like other housing authorities, routinely evicts residents whose criminal cases have not yet been decided or who have been cleared of criminal charges.

I asked Montel Gayles, Mr. Peterson’s chief of staff, about the statement quoted in the Tribune. He replied that Mr. Peterson may have been misquoted and added, “In any case, it’s not up to us. It’s the federal law.”

Perhaps Mr. Peterson was misquoted. I have no desire to hold him to a statement he has disavowed. Is it possible, though, that in an unguarded moment he may have responded to a reporter’s question by speaking out of his fundamental sense of fairness and decency rather than trying to defend the way the One-Strike machinery actually works? The words attributed to him by the reporter described a policy that would make sense: we evict those who have been convicted. It’s harder to defend a policy that results in the eviction of those who have been found not guilty or had the charges against them dropped.

Heading
One strike policy excerpt from CHA document.

The misunderstanding suggested by the remark attributed to Mr. Peterson is widely shared by public housing residents (as well as, I suspect, by many others). Guided by notions of rudimentary fairness, residents often assume that if they are cleared of the criminal charge they will be allowed to stay in their homes. They have a hard time comprehending how the One-Strike machinery actually works: they simply can’t believe the legal system could be so unfair.

This policy that declares its unfairness in its name (at least to baseball fans) was announced by President Clinton in his 1996 State of the Union address: “And I challenge local housing authorities and tenant associations: Criminal gang members and drug dealers are destroying the lives of decent tenants. From now on, the rule for residents who commit crimes and peddle drugs should be one strike and you’re out.”

The Clinton challenge took the form of strengthening the relevant provisions of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 by creating incentives for public housing authorities to pursue One-Strike evictions: HUD includes assessment of One-Strike evictions in the performance evaluation ratings that are used in determining funding levels and the degree of federal oversight for public housing authorities. The Clinton administration also extended the reach of the law by changing the statutory language from crimes committed “on or near the premises” to crimes committed “on or off the premises.”

The precise issue before the Supreme Court in Rucker was important but relatively narrow: could public housing authorities evict tenants for drug-related activity by any household member or guest, even if that activity took place outside the apartment and the tenant had no knowledge of it? The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had held that the law did not permit the eviction of tenants who lacked knowledge. Any other interpretation, it said, would raise serious constitutional questions.

The Supreme Court overruled the Ninth Circuit. The decision was unanimous; there were no separate concurring opinions. The opinion by Chief Justice Rehnquist is untroubled. It is an exercise in statutory interpretation. The Chief Justice does not feel the need to address any constitutional questions. He finds no ambiguity in the intent of Congress:

With drug dealers increasingly imposing a reign of terror on public and other federally assisted low-income housing tenants, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Act of 1988.

And:

With drugs leading to murders, muggings, and other forms of violence against tenants, and to the deterioration of the physical environment that requires substantial government expenditures, it was reasonable for Congress to permit no-fault evictions in order to provide public housing that is decent, safe, and free from illegal drugs.

The level of scrutiny the Court brings to bear in such exercises in statutory construction is not very demanding. Rehnquist writes:

It is not absurd that a local housing authority may sometimes evict a tenant who had no knowledge of the drug-related activity. [Emphasis added.]

Note that the basis for eviction is “drug-related activity.” It’s not conviction for a crime. Arrest triggers the eviction process. Tenants may be evicted while their criminal case is still in progress. It is not uncommon for the criminal case to be thrown out and for the eviction case to go forward.

What has the impact of One-Strike been? The CHA recently made available statistics, based on reports from property managers, on cases initiated August, 2000 through April, 2002.

Several different outcomes are possible in One-Strike cases:

Agreed orders. A negotiated settlement under which the offending party is taken off the lease and/or barred from the unit. Typically in such settlements, the tenant is placed on probation: another offense brings automatic eviction.

Judgments for the CHA. A verdict is rendered in favor of the CHA, resulting in the eviction of the tenant.

Judgments for the tenant. A verdict is rendered in favor of the tenant, allowing the family to retain their apartment and restoring them to lease compliance.

Dismissals. The case is dismissed by the judge. According to Stephanie Horton, the One-Strike Project Manager for the CHA, the reason for dismissal in most instances is that the police fail to appear.

Vacate / move-outs. Without knowing their legal rights, tenants move out on their own after receiving a 10-day notice, the document that initiates the eviction process, and before a One-Strike is filed. According to Ms. Horton, “the majority leave because they fear they’re going to be evicted at the end of ten days.”

Cancellations. The CHA cancels the One-Strike because of mistaken identity or procedural errors on the part of the property manager.

According to the CHA, 93% of One-Strike cases over this period have originated in family developments, 4% in senior housing, and 3% in scattered site housing. The numbers below should thus be read as representing families rather than individuals in the vast majority of cases .

Agreed orders entered 263 37%
Judgments for the CHA 187 26%
Dismissals 72 10%
Cancellations 43 6%

Over a period of a year and nine months, 717 One-Strike cases have been concluded. In 328 of these cases (46%), the family was evicted or moved out on its own under the misperception that eviction was imminent. In 263 cases (37%), the family was allowed to stay on the condition that it exclude the offending party—often a child or grandchild of the leaseholder–from the family home.

In addition to the 717 cases that have been concluded over the last twenty-one months, 847 cases are currently pending. This total includes 280 “one-strike eligible incidents” referred to the CHA by the Chicago Police Department during the first four months of this year. At this rate, an additional 560 incidents will be referred to the CHA by the end of the year, yielding a projected total of 1,407 cases.

The above statistics suggest the dimensions of the impact of the One-Strike policy on individuals, families, and communities in Chicago public housing—and by extension in public housing developments across the nation. The CHA is one of 3,300 housing authorities in the United States, all of which have been challenged by HUD to pursue One-Strike evictions.

In view of the fact that the Supreme Court has unanimously upheld the law and that Congressional repeal is highly unlikely, it is at the level of implementation by individual housing authorities that the law might be made more equitable.

Several issues demand attention:

The quality of law enforcement. The argument for One-Strike rests on a narrative about conditions in public housing that goes like this: Public housing communities are drug-infested. They are under siege by violent gangs engaged in the drug trade. The police have exhausted their resources in trying to deal with these conditions. The problem is beyond the capacity of conventional law enforcement. Hence the need for special measures. Thoughtful advocates of One-Strike acknowledge that it trenches on the frontiers of constitutionality. It is, however, reasonable for Congress to have passed the law, they argue, in light of the extreme conditions prevailing in public housing. Putting aside for the moment the question of whether this narrative is accurate, it presupposes good police work. But what if the quality of law enforcement is uneven? What if it’s abusive? Does the One-Strike process provide adequate safeguards against unjust outcomes resulting from police misconduct?

Unintended consequences arising from the interaction of criminal law and civil law. The protections of the criminal law do not extend to eviction proceedings. The upshot is that evidence inadequate to convict in the criminal case may be sufficient to evict in the civil case. Part of the rationale for the higher standards of proof in criminal cases is the relative severity of criminal sanctions—the loss of freedom that imprisonment entails. But in One-Strike cases it is often the eviction rather than the criminal penalty that is the ultimate sanction. Consider the value of lease compliance to a resident of a development undergoing relocation and redevelopment: one’s current housing, access to a Section 8 voucher over time, and ultimately the opportunity to return to newly constructed housing in a mixed income community. How would we assess the adequacy of procedural protections in One-Strike cases, if the sanction was a fine equal to the value of those benefits?

Structural incentives to evict. Among the arguments made for One-Strike is that public housing is a scarce resource. There is not enough available for those who need it. Hence criteria other than need must necessarily be used to allocate this resource. From this perspective, One-Strike evictions can be seen as giving priority to law-abiding tenants. In announcing the One-Strike policy in his 1996 State of the Union address, President Clinton stated that it is “morally wrong” to allow households implicated in criminal activity “to use up homes that could make a big difference in the lives of decent families.” This sort of argument has more force in settings where public housing units once vacated are rented out. But the CHA is in the process of “transforming” public housing—demolishing high-rise developments and replacing them with mixed income neighborhoods. Under the Plan for Transformation, the CHA has assumed responsibility for providing housing not to the population of those in need, not to the thousands on the waiting list but to a fixed number of tenants who were residents as of a particular date—October 1, 1999. The CHA has finite resources for achieving its objectives. There are thus structural incentives to evict, for each eviction represents one less household to which it is obligated to provide the benefits of the Plan. One need not assert that the CHA is consciously pursuing such a strategy to be concerned that the process will be skewed toward the outcome of eviction. What sorts of safeguards against this tendency might be built into the process?

The impact on families. As the statistics above show, a significant number of One-Strike cases—roughly 44% of all cases that aren’t cancelled or dismissed—are settled by an agreement under which the offending party is taken off the lease and/or barred from the unit. Does the nature of the One-Strike process create undue pressure to enter into such settlements, despite the costs to the family? In our experience at Stateway Gardens, these settlements are often a matter of the leaseholder agreeing, in effect, to banish their child from the family home. This hidden dimension of One-Strike needs to be assessed against the background of patterns of police misconduct and the failure of the CHA as landlord to fulfill its obligations to tenants. The CHA has agreed, post-Rucker, that it will continue to allow lack of knowledge as a defense—i.e., the tenant may prevail if she can show that she had no knowledge of the alleged criminal activity by a member of her household or guest. But this defense is not available to the concerned, engaged parent who knows her child is on a problematic trajectory and is trying to address the problem. Over the years, I have known residents to be evicted or forced to banish a child, when they were in fact making exemplary efforts to do right by their children and the community. One of the first One-Strike cases at Stateway Gardens in 1997 was precipitated by the arrest of a 16-year old boy on a minor drug charge. His mother, aware that he was being drawn into the orbit of the drug dealers operating in the lobby of her building, fought to hold on to him. She closely monitored his activities and regularly confronted him. She challenged gang leaders to leave her son alone and often stayed up all night to see that he didn’t leave the apartment. She participated in anti-violence demonstrations, including a march conducted by a group of mothers in the middle of a gang war. The conditions in which she struggled to raise her children were not the product of her household but rather were consequences of her community having been abandoned by various public institutions. Did the eviction of this woman and her children make Stateway a safer, stronger community? Did it protect the “decent” people in public housing from the criminals? Or is there a sense in which the One-Strike policy forces vulnerable households to bear the costs incurred by the institutions that have failed them?

In an occasional series The View From The Ground will explore these questions by closely examining individual One-Strike cases.