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CHA plan for required drug testing of residents called ‘a slap in the face’

The Chicago Housing Authority wants require all adults seeking housing any it's developments submit drug testing.  MyrKing who leads

The Chicago Housing Authority wants to require all adults seeking housing in any of it's developments to submit to drug testing. Myra King, who leads the Central Advisory Council, talks about the policy proposals that have tenant lawyers crying foul. Thursday, May 26, 2011 | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 3, 2011 1:39PM

The Chicago Housing Authority wants to require all adults who currently live in, or apply in the future for housing in any of its developments, to be tested for drugs — including senior citizens.

The blanket policy proposal for anyone 18 years or older has residents and housing advocates crying foul.

The American Civil Liberties Union charges the public agency seeks to place a double standard on the poor.

“It’s such an insensitive proposal to even bring to the table,” said Myra King, a resident of the Far South Side Lowden Homes development. She chairs the Central Advisory Council of tenant leaders from CHA properties all across the city.

“Singling us out for this type of humiliation is a slap in the face of what this whole ‘Plan for Transformation’ supposedly is about,” King said. “CHA says they’re doing this plan to make us privvy to the same standards as any other citizen in any other community. If that’s true, why are we the only citizens to be drug tested?”

The measure is among several changes to the lease and CHA’s Admissions and Continued Occupancy Policy proposed by CEO Lewis Jordan. Under the policy, a positive drug test would subject leaseholders to eviction proceedings.

Agency officials argue they need more tools to fight crime, particularly the drug scourge, in CHA developments.

Also controversial is a proposed elimination of the so-called “innocent tenant defense,” referring to evictions initiated when a drug-related or violent crime has been committed by a relative or guest of the leaseholding tenant — but the tenant was not involved nor had knowledge of the crime. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled housing authorities may evict under such “innocent tenant” circumstances, so CHA would be within its rights. But former CHA chief Terry Peterson had negotiated an agreement with tenants that had continued to allow the defense if it could be proved in court.

Jordan, who took over the agency in 2008, declined to be interviewed on the proposals.

Spokeswoman Kellie O’Connell-Miller pointed out several CHA mixed-income properties currently require drug testing.

“These are policies to help strengthen and improve the safety of our public housing communities,” O’Connell-Miller said.

“We’re constantly hearing from law-abiding residents that they want us to hold the non-law abiding residents more accountable. We’re trying to tighten up our lease with some of these issues. Drug dealers won’t come where there are no buyers. If you remove the folks who are interested in drugs, hopefully it will remove some of the problems,” she said.

The policy would apply to 16,000 families living in family and senior public housing. The agency has not yet explored the cost associated with the proposal, O’Connell-Miller said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development here said as federal policy prohibits drug users from public housing property, authorities nationwide are free to enforce that rule as they see fit. HUD does not track such enforcement, so it could not say if any other housing authorities had such a blanket policy, nor could CHA.

“The ACLU opposes drug testing in the absence of suspicion as a condition of residency in public housing,” said senior lawyer Adam Schwartz.

“From our perspective, drug testing without suspicion is humiliating. It’s stigmatizing. There’s a double standard here,” he said. “All across our city and our country, when most of us who are in whatever income bracket rent housing, we don’t have to take a drug test. This is an emerging one standard for poor people and another standard for everyone else.”

However, a 1999 ACLU case filed against the state of Michigan may not bode well for such a proposal, Schwartz noted.

In Marchwinski vs Howard, the head of that state’s Department of Public Aid mandated blanket drug testing for a sub-population of public aid recipients. The ACLU won an injunction that was later upheld by an appellate court.

The proposed changes, unveiled May 17, are open to public comment through June 16. A public hearing on the changes is scheduled to be held at 6 p.m. June 2nd, at the Charles A. Hayes Center, 4455 S. King Drive. If adopted, the proposal then has to go before the CHA Board and chairman Jim Reynolds for approval, then HUD.

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