Berkeley Uses No-Business Law to Evict Dealers
Invoking a legal prohibition against commercial businesses in publicly subsidized housing, usually tolerant Berkeley city officials are taking a hard line against drug dealers by literally tossing them out into the street.
It is not the first time a housing authority has used evictions to control rampant drug problems. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp has pledged vigorous enforcement of regulations permitting such evictions. But federal officials said Berkeley was the first to use the no-business clause to rid subsidized housing of drug dealers.
Long Waiting Lists
As a curious result, the program has aligned the very liberal city with the conservative Bush Administration, which now touts such evictions as a possible model solution for other drug-plagued housing where tenants receive subsidies.
“People have long said there are so many thousands of honest, needy people on waiting lists that we shouldn’t be subsidizing those who cause a problem--those who are dealing drugs out of their apartments,” said Dirk Murphy of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development office in San Francisco.
Murphy said there may be other cities by now that are following the Berkeley example. “But Berkeley is the first one out of the gates. They apparently have done a first-rate job that is aggressive and attentive to due process,” he said.
However, civil libertarians criticize Berkeley’s approach as an unfair meat ax that relies on flimsy evidence, denies fair hearings and makes innocent old people homeless when they cannot control their younger, stronger children.
“We want the drug dealers arrested too, but we do not want those who have already suffered to be made, essentially, scapegoats for a problem the city or society cannot solve,” said James Chanin, a Berkeley lawyer representing five people facing eviction under the no-business clause.
“None of the people I represent are accused of using or selling drugs,” added Chanin. “They’re only accused of having relatives who use drugs or being in an area when drugs are used. . . . It’s not fair to hold a woman responsible for what her son does in her apartment when she is in a hospital in Sacramento.”
Berkeley’s approach focuses on the “Section 8" subsidized-housing voucher program funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Participants pay 30% of their income to reside in a privately owned apartment, with the government making up the difference between their share and the fair-market rent.
Housing Authority Alerted
Whenever Berkeley police make a drug-related arrest or find drugs during a search in a Section 8 apartment, they tell the city’s Housing Authority, which proceeds to cancel the renter’s subsidy. That alone doesn’t evict tenants but usually leads to eviction because tenants are unable to pay the rent themselves.
Key to the program is not to wait for a difficult-to-prove drug conviction but to act swiftly on a provision stating that subsidized housing is “solely for residence by the family"--not for operation of a business, legal or illegal.
People threatened with losing their assistance are entitled to a hearing in which they can challenge the evidence against them and present any extenuating facts that may keep them in the program. Berkeley has held 16 such hearings so far; three residents have succeeded in keeping their assistance.
HUD chief Kemp urged other local housing authorities to use the same approach in an April 28 letter. “I heartily endorse your use of these provisions, where possible,” he said.
Kemp noted that the approach is useful only in the Section 8 program because it uses month-to-month leases of privately owned housing. Where projects are owned and operated by government authorities, officials have long had the authority to evict drug dealers. Those efforts have multiplied in recent months after Congress and the Bush Administration urged that housing developments not be permitted to become havens for the drug trade.
Among the most aggressive occurred last March in Alexandria, Va., after HUD officials agreed to waive a federal appeals process to speed evictions. More than 40 individuals from 10 families were evicted. Cities throughout Virginia and Massachusetts have won similar exemptions designed to speed evictions.
Evictions More Common
But even without those waivers, evictions of drug dealers have become increasingly common in a number of major cities, including Philadelphia and Chicago. Murphy said 1.4 million units are owned by housing authorities nationwide. In contrast, a little more than 2.2 million privately owned units participate in two versions of the Section 8 program.
Berkeley became a model for the no-business evictions because it has built very little of its own public housing and relies almost entirely on privately owned Section 8 housing for the 1,650 low-income families it serves.
Times staff writers Douglas Jehl and Kevin Roderick contributed to this article.