High Court Reviews Challenge of Public Housing Eviction Law

The Supreme Court should stop the government from evicting elderly public housing tenants who are unaware of relatives' drug use, lawyer representing senior citizens told justices Tuesday.

The court is considering a case that tests a zero-tolerance drug policy for federally subsidized housing. Entire families may be evicted for the drug use of one member.

Innocent housing residents have become victims of aggressive housing authorities, said Paul Renne, the lawyer for four California tenants.

"The end result ... is to throw them into the streets," he told the court.

The outcome will affect anyone who lives in public housing, but the attention in this case is on senior citizens who could be oblivious to younger family members' drug use.

Public housing directors contend they are doing what Congress intended, cleaning up housing projects by getting rid of drug users and those who enable them.

The four Oakland, Calif., senior citizens, including 63-year-old Pearlie Rucker, sued over the one-strike-and-you're-out rule. They had received eviction notices because of the drug use of relatives or caregivers.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor seemed skeptical of the senior citizens' legal arguments while sympathetic to their plight.

"One wonders why the government wants to take such an extreme position," she said. "They (rules) sound pretty Draconian."

However, O'Connor told the lawyer for the tenants that the federal law does not give an exception to people who were unaware of drug dealing.

An appeals court had blocked enforcement of the law.

At issue is whether housing directors are being more aggressive than Congress intended. The law was passed in 1988 and endorsed by the Clinton administration in 1996 and by the Bush administration last year.

Families can be removed for the drug use of one member, whether the drug activity is in the home or somewhere else.

Under the Department of Housing and Urban Development's enforcement program, tenants may not avoid eviction simply by claiming ignorance of the crime or an inability to stop it.

Gary T. Lafayette, the attorney for Oakland's housing authority, described serious drug problems and said residents expect safe housing.

More than 1.7 million families headed by people over age 61 live in government-subsidized housing, the AARP and other groups told the Supreme Court. Those people should not be punished for something they knew nothing about and had no control over, the groups argued.

A public safety group, the Center for the Community Interest, said such tough rules are needed to combat savvy dealers.

"Drug dealers entrench themselves in public housing communities, terrorize the majority of law-abiding residents, then exploit legal procedures to thwart housing authorities' attempts to remove them," the group said in a filing.

Pearlie Rucker's mentally disabled daughter was caught with cocaine three blocks from the apartment she shared with her mother and other family members, court records show.

Rucker and the other three senior citizens in the case remain in public housing, pending the court's decision. The four were not expected to attend the court argument.

The cases are Department of Housing and Urban Development v. Rucker, 00-1770, and Oakland Housing Authority v. Rucker, 00-1781.