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Editorial: CHA: Don’t toss out good eggs with bad

Updated: May 9, 2012 9:48AM



With its long and ugly history always lurking in the background, the Chicago Housing Authority is intent on not repeating past mistakes. The agency’s turnabout includes a concerted effort to stop allowing a small band of criminals from ruining life in the developments for everyone else.

For that, CHA residents and the public at large should be grateful. The CHA is aggressively enforcing rules and evicting people who break them. More than 200,000 families applied last summer to get on the CHA’s wait list; there is no shortage of law-abiding Chicagoans ready to move into a rehabbed or new public housing apartment.

But a recent in-depth look at the CHA’s eviction policies by the Chicago Reporter raises important questions about whether the agency is going overboard. Too many people appear to be caught up in the CHA’s aggressive enforcement of its “one-strike” eviction policy, tossing people out of the only housing they can afford.

Between 2005 and 2010, the CHA moved to evict 1,390 households, according to an investigation by the Reporter’s Angela Caputo. On the face of it, the number is not a problem. That’s just a fraction of the 17,000 families living in CHA and may represent just the right percentage of residents who deserve to be evicted.

The problem is we’re not sure.

Under federal law, the CHA can — and does — immediately move to evict a leaseholder if anyone on the lease or a visitor is arrested. The CHA doesn’t have to wait for a conviction. The largest percentage of arrests, 73 percent, were for possession of pot or a controlled substance, Caputo found.

A CHA eviction can stand even if the person arrested is never convicted — as it did in more than half the cases Caputo tracked — because the standard of proof in eviction court is lower than in criminal court. Among the 1,390 arrests, 86 percent involved someone other than the primary leaseholder.

Ultimately, in 61 percent of the cases Caputo tracked, somebody was kicked out of CHA housing — either the entire family or the single person arrested. Fourteen percent left CHA housing without fighting the eviction. Just 2 percent of families prevailed in eviction court, Caputo found.

Lawyers for the Legal Assistance Foundation, which represents many CHA families, see two main problems with the policy, and we think they’re on the mark:

† There should be a lesser penalty than eviction, most notably probation, for relatively minor infractions such as pot possession. The CHA offered this option in two cases recently and its general counsel told us Thursday that he would consider recommending this as an ongoing option to the CHA leadership, which is encouraging news.

† The CHA also should reconsider its blanket policy of moving to evict immediately after arrest. This would allow for some discretion — Was this a first offense? Should probation be an option? — before the courts become involved. A sizable percentage of residents get free legal assistance, but many must fend for themselves in a legal thicket. A delay before court action would give the CHA time to investigate before pursuing an eviction and make sure families are aware that one option is for the CHA to ban just the person arrested, rather than the whole family.

In many cases, a move to evict right after arrest is warranted and the CHA is right to defend the practice.

We don’t want to discourage the CHA from moving the bad guys out. But in the rush to do so, the agency may be denying the good guys a safe and sensible second chance.

Read the Chicago Reporter story “One and done” at www.chicagoreporter.com

Read the Chicago Housing Authority’s response to the Reporter story at: http://www.thecha.org/filebin/9_9_11_CHA_Response_to_Caputo_9-9-11.pdf

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