Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp on Wednesday defended a plan that would evict some families along with their drug-dealing relatives from public housing, saying that parents and other relatives must share responsibility for illegal activity inside their homes.
The plan is part of a broader effort by Kemp to repair the fractured image of the nation's public housing projects, which in many cases have become centers for drug trafficking and drug-related crime. Toward that end, Kemp has pledged to vigorously enforce regulations requiring the eviction of households whose members are involved in drug offenses.
His comments Wednesday came in response to widespread denunciations of the policy, which could leave parents and children homeless as a result of their relatives' wrongdoing, tenants' rights advocates and others have warned.
Clearly troubled by his critics, Kemp repeatedly assured a Senate subcommittee Wednesday that he would seek to ensure that tenants receive a fair hearing under law. He said that proposed evictions of drug traffickers' families will be decided on a "case-by-case basis," and described such decisions as "Solomon-like" in their difficulty.
But he said that he continues to regard as "entirely reasonable" the premise that "families can be evicted because they are responsible for the behavior of their children and what goes on in the unit."
At the hearing, Kemp received an unexpected endorsement from a resident of a Washington, D.C., housing project, who told the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee on investigations that she banished her 30-year-old cocaine-using daughter from their publicly funded residence.
"If parents who have children who are doing drugs want their (publicly funded) place, let them put their children out," said the woman, Edith Grigsby, who is raising two of her daughter's children.
Another public housing resident, however, made clear her qualms about the program.
"Mother and sister and brother cannot be responsible for their son or brother," said Mildred Wortham of Chicago. "They are not their keepers."
In the effort to speed the evictions of drug offenders from public housing, Kemp has granted waivers to Virginia and Massachusetts from regulations guaranteeing evicted tenants a right to appeal their cases to a federal board.
Exemption for California
The secretary is considering a similar request from the city of San Francisco that, if approved, would exempt all California cities from federal eviction regulations. Kemp said Wednesday that he would grant such waivers only if the department is confident that existing laws guarantee tenants' rights to appeal to state courts.
Despite his emphasis on evictions, Kemp acknowledged in his testimony that as many as 70% of drug-related crimes in public housing complexes may be committed by non-residents. For that reason, he asked the Senate on Tuesday for permission to use $80 million in housing rehabilitation funds to improve security around housing complexes by building fences and installing photo identification systems.
"You can't go into some fancy apartment buildings in big cities today without identifying yourself," Kemp said. "It seems to me that we ought to have the same respect for the rights of tenants in public housing."
Kemp, who has traveled to nearly two dozen public housing complexes around the country during his three months in office, won enthusiastic praise from the primarily Democratic panel.
"Secretary Kemp has hit the ground running," said Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who noted that an outburst of drug-related crime in public housing complexes had "repeatedly sent shock waves of anger and fear" through the country.
"You're the point man," said Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.). "You're the one who can have an enormously powerful impact."