The Baltimore City Housing Authority can continue its speedy eviction proceedings against tenants charged with certain criminal activity, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the housing authority’s 1995 policy of hauling tenants straight to court for eviction hearings if they were charged with specific crimes, whether they were convicted of the crimes or not.
The policy was challenged by tenants who claimed that a 1984 consent decree with the housing authority gave them the right to an informal hearing with management and a formal grievance hearing before eviction proceedings could begin.
But the U.S. District Court said last spring that the consent decree no longer applied, since Congress in 1990 rewrote the National Housing Act to allow eviction without an administrative hearing for tenants accused of drug crimes or of threatening a housing authority worker or resident. The circuit court upheld that ruling Wednesday.
A housing authority attorney hailed the circuit court’s decision, saying the speedier eviction proceedings have allowed the housing authority to “really clean this thing up.” Melvin Jews estimated that the authority has been able to evict several hundred tenants — mostly drug dealers and users.
“The change has been remarkable, especially in light of the new developments in the area,” he said.
But the tenants’ attorney said the ruling does more than let the city’s housing authority clean up. Legal Aid’s Gregory Countess said it essentially provides for a clean sweep that can overlook inaccuracies in police reports and penalizes entire families for the behavior of just one family member.
Under the court’s ruling, he said, a 70-year-old woman could be brought to court for violating her lease if a son or grandson used drugs. He called it “part of a larger sledgehammer approach to the war on drugs.”
The 1984 consent decree, he said, at least allowed tenants a chance to talk informally with housing management and to go before an independent panel for a grievance hearing “to save their homes.”
But Jews said that tenants are trying to save their homes by demanding a public housing clean-up. They are the ones calling the police to report drug activity, he said.
“Ninety-nine percent of our tenants are good, hard-working, law-abiding families who just want to make sure their children are safe,” Jews said.
Countess doubts that the housing authority’s cleaning spree is helping 99 percent of tenants, as Jews claims. He said that there “seems to be no discretion exercised by the housing authority.”
The tenants’ last hope, he said, is a clause in the lease that was negotiated in 1997, which gives them the chance to talk to management before their eviction cases are brought to court. Tenants can use those informal conversations to show how an entire family might be hurt by one child’s mistake, to point to inaccuracies in police records or — if guilty of drug possession — to show that they have begun substance abuse treatment.
But Countess said housing management has not been granting those meetings. He said he was not surprised by the federal court decision, but was disappointed for the residents.