Troubled by the growing prevalence of drug trafficking in housing projects, the Bush Administration Wednesday officially exempted the state of Virginia from federal tenant-protection laws as part of an aggressive new effort to evict drug dealers from the nation’s public housing.
The unprecedented move, among the most far-reaching of the Administration’s new anti-drug initiatives, faces an almost-certain legal challenge. But Administration officials defended the action, saying that it affords tenants adequate legal protections.
As Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp proclaimed that the eviction of drug dealers is among his “top priorities,” sources close to him said that it is likely the new tactic will be extended far beyond Virginia, which was granted an informal exemption late Tuesday night.
Response to Shoot-Out
That action came in response to a shoot-out in Alexandria that left a policeman and a drug suspect dead and a neighborhood traumatized in an outbreak of drug-related violence that officials fear has become all too characteristic of the nation’s housing projects.
The exemption from the federal statutes gives Virginia public housing officials the power to evict drug dealers and users without first resorting to administrative proceedings that can delay action for months. Tenants who seek to challenge eviction orders must now appeal directly to the courts.
Civil libertarians and tenants’ rights advocates denounced the move, saying that it could deprive innocent people of shelter. They noted that a federal court in Washington last year overruled a Ronald Reagan Administration attempt to streamline the eviction procedures and charged that the latest move violates that court order.
But public housing administrators across the country welcomed the move and many said that they would ask Kemp for similar powers.
“As long as we’ve got drugs,” said Chicago Housing Authority chairman Vince Evans, “life in the projects will be hell.”
Authorities in Alexandria used their new power immediately to evict 41 suspected drug dealers and their families. “I just want them out of the city,” said Mayor James P. Moran.
Administration officials said they would decide whether to grant further exemptions after considering proposals from cities and states as part of a review conducted by Kemp and William J. Bennett, director of national drug control policy.
They said that the government would move to speed the eviction process only in areas in which state law provides tenants with adequate protection. A spokesman for Kemp, Mary Brunette, emphasized that the federal exemption “certainly does not exempt states from going through the normal appeals procedure” to address tenant grievances.
The goal of the new crackdown, Kemp said in a statement, is to “clean the drugs out of public housing and to help reclaim these communities for law-abiding public citizens.”
Public housing officials interviewed Wednesday said that the pervasiveness of drugs and violence in housing projects across the country has come to dominate life within them. Even in affluent Alexandria, Moran noted, “tenants feared for their lives and had difficulty keeping their children from being involved in drugs.”
At the Hopkins-Tancil Court housing project there, where the shooting took place, residents said Monday that while they want drug dealers to be evicted, they worry that residents not involved in drug activity also could lose their homes.
“Innocent people could get thrown out,” said Pernell Taylor, who has lived in the project for 12 years. “It’s ruination to them.”
In most states, authorities can move to evict a suspected drug dealer from public housing on the basis of a single arrest on a drug-related offense and need not await a conviction. In most cases, the evicted individual’s family also loses the right to housing.
Until now, such action could be appealed first in the federal administrative process and then in the state courts. Because Wednesday’s decision on Virginia removes the federal step from the appeals process, housing advocates said they were concerned that housing authorities might now be encouraged to act too hastily.
“It’s one thing to bypass the grievance process when you’re trying to evict an individual who is selling drugs,” said David Bryson of the National Housing Law Center. “It’s another thing when you try to evict the whole family because an individual in the family has done something wrong.”
The law center successfully blocked the previous effort to speed evictions, winning a temporary restraining order in federal court here early this year that invalidated new regulations proposed by the Reagan Administration.
Bryson said that he believes the Bush Administration’s granting of exemptions was merely a new attempt to implement the rules rejected by the court. But Brunette, the Kemp spokesman, said that the Administration is confident its action will be upheld.
Staff writer Brian J. Couturier contributed to this article.