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Perspectives: Don't evict the innocent

The city aims at wrong targets in public housing

Friday, November 03, 2000

By Witold Walczak

The casualties of war usually include innocent civilians. The war on drugs is no exception. In most wars, however, the generals make (or should make) a determined effort to minimize the loss of civilian life. Astonishingly, Mayor Tom Murphy and Pittsburgh Housing Authority Director Stanley Lowe, the generals of Pittsburgh's war on drugs in public housing, are fighting for the right to attack innocent civilians.

  Witold Walczak is executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Murphy and Lowe this week chided Legal Services lawyers and the courts for preventing the city from being able to evict criminals and drug dealers from publicly assisted (often called Section 8) housing. In fact, however, the city's legal war is being waged not against the young men who committed crimes or used drugs, but against their families, who are innocent of wrongdoing.

Government officials already have the authority to evict from public or Section 8 housing people who use drugs or commit violent crimes. For instance, in the two court cases Murphy and Lowe have railed against this week, the criminal wrongdoers have been punished and can be excluded from the premises. But that's not enough for the drug warriors.

Murphy and Lowe want a more powerful weapon to fight the war on drugs. The weapon they want is the authority to evict the innocent family members of people charged with crimes. In the two controversial cases, Murphy and Lowe want to evict two mothers and their two young children. These family members did not commit a crime, did not know that their sons (or brothers) were committing a crime, and could not reasonably have prevented the crimes. One of the cases involved a 22-year-old son who didn't even live in the mother's house! In every way, the family members are innocent.

Even the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which demands that local housing authorities apply a zero-tolerance drug policy, recognizes the need "to handle these cases on an individualized basis. . . . In particular, when a tenant has taken all reasonable steps to prevent the criminal activity, eviction may not always be warranted or proper. To ensure both humane results and success in court, housing authorities should undertake a case-by-case analysis before proceeding with eviction." The two cases being fought by Murphy and Lowe fit squarely into this exception.

The issue is not whether the government should take steps to ensure a secure living environment. Everyone agrees that providing safety for public housing residents is vitally important. People living outside the public housing context expect no less from their municipal officials and police departments. Less well-to-do people are entitled to the same consideration.

Rather, the dispute is over what means are justified to achieve public safety. Murphy and Lowe want to be able to evict people innocent of any wrongdoing in order to fight crime and drugs. In civil liberties parlance, this is guilt by association, a concept rejected by most Americans. Will this tactic advance the war on drugs? Perhaps, but at what cost?

The immediate goal of the Murphy/Lowe legal battle is to evict two mothers and two children, ages 9-15, all of whom are blameless. If the city is successful in establishing a right to evict the harmless family members of people charged with crimes, more innocent people will undoubtedly be put on the streets.

Presumably, Murphy and Lowe would argue that parents can and must be responsible for the sins of their children. This attitude naively believes that parents can always prevent wrongdoing by their children. In some cases, perhaps they can. But in others, especially where it is a first transgression, the parents may truly be helpless. Murphy and Lowe would say, tough luck.

On the other hand, it would be political suicide for any government official to suggest that this same strict standard should be applied to parents in privately owned homes. We don't take away people's necessities, including housing, if their children stray. We use the criminal justice and social service support systems to work with the offender. Why are we as a society willing to condone a stricter standard for the poor than we are for everyone else?

Just as we would never stand for the slaughter of innocent civilians by American soldiers during wartime, doing so in the war on drugs should be equally repugnant to us. The innocent people targeted for eviction by the housing authority, and the 1,680 people on Section 8 waiting lists that Mayor Murphy wants to hold up until he gets his way, have done no wrong. They deserve no punishment, certainly not the loss of housing.

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