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Drug testing for the good of CHA

Updated: September 19, 2013 9:55AM

Unfortunately, the odds look pretty good for a lawsuit filed last week that aims to force the Chicago Housing Authority to drop its policy of drug testing tenants in its new communities that mix public housing and market rate renters.

Unfortunately, we say, because on balance we believe the drug-testing policy does more good than harm in helping to create and preserve stronger and safer public housing.

The policy is one small but important piece of an effort to set a tone for a radically different CHA. To replace its dysfunctional high-rise ghettos, CHA is rehabbing public housing developments and building mixed communities. All renters at several of the CHA’s mixed communities, both subsidized and market rate, must submit to a drug test to qualify for a unit and then each year upon renewal, which can be annually. Testing began in 2003.

Do we know for sure that drug testing makes a difference, that new developments couldn’t be managed just fine without it?

No. But we’d rather set the bar high up front than try to repair damage after problems erupt.

Plenty of CHA residents don’t like the testing — and we don’t blame them.

In the federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Joseph Peery, a public housing renter in Old Town, describes the annual testing as “humiliating, invasive and stigmatizing.” Peery has taken and passed the test four times. All renters must take the tests, but there’s little doubt they’re prompted by the presence of CHA residents, many of which see it as yet another way to make them feel second class.


But what of the other CHA residents, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding, who like to know that the rules are clear and the bar high for entrance? Tenant drug use wasn’t why life in the CHA unraveled — it was drug selling on the properties, often by outsiders. And it was poor upkeep, poor management, under-funding and a concentration of Chicago’s poorest. But clearly, lax rules at the top played a role.

And what about the non-CHA renters, who are a critical component of these mixed developments, and also want a high bar given CHA’s lousy history?

The ACLU has a strong legal argument that the CHA’s “suspicionless” drug tests violate the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. The civil liberties group used that same argument, successfully, to argue against drug testing as a condition for receiving welfare benefits in Florida and Michigan. To win in Chicago, the burden is on the CHA to prove what government interest is advanced by suspicionless drug testing. Few, if any, other housing authorities require drug testing as an entry for admission.

The ACLU also points to two-year-old data from the CHA that show that less than 4 percent of prospective or current CHA residents in mixed communities failed a drug test, only 50 people, over multiple years. To the ACLU this means drug use isn’t a problem, but we aren’t convinced. It could mean drug users don’t apply, which is precisely what CHA wanted.

The ACLU also argues there are alternatives to testing to keep drug users out, such as legal searches based on suspicious behavior and greater police presence.

But in the real world of public housing, we’d guess most people would prefer keeping drug users out on the front end rather than attempting to throw them out once they’re already in.

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