WASHINGTON – Doris Sarumi did not hesitate before she kicked a young mom and her six kids out of public housing this winter when a man who was living with them got caught with drugs.
“It did not cross my mind that there was six children living there,” Sarumi said, “because there probably is 106 children who require safety and should be free of that kind of behavior in the community.”
The acting director of the Glenarden Housing Authority defended her action, pointing to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “one strike and you’re out” initiative, a law aimed at keeping public housing free from drug dealers and addicts.
But to housing officials across the state, “one strike” doesn’t always mean what it says.
A Capital News Service survey of the state’s 25 housing authorities found uneven application of the one-strike measure, with some districts evicting tenants at a much higher rate during the past five years than others.
The use of the law seems to depend on decisions of local public housing directors. That subjectivity has landed the issue before the Supreme Court, which is considering a drug-eviction case from California.
In Maryland, the CNS survey found that a family living in one of the 150 public housing units in Elkton was more than seven times more likely to be thrown out on drug charges than one living in Baltimore’s roughly 14,700 units.
Results were equally skewed when comparing Maryland’s most populous jurisdictions. Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties had about the same rate of drug evictions over the five-year span. In Hagerstown, those odds doubled, and in Annapolis, they quadrupled.
The survey also found that five housing authorities — each with fewer than 110 units — did not evict a single family for drug activity in the five years polled. Meanwhile, six others of similar size have shipped out as many as three households because of drugs since 1997.
Federal law requires that local housing managers include zero-tolerance wording in their leases so they can evict entire families the first time even one member uses, buys or sells drugs anywhere, even in another state.
Some, like Sarumi, are unyielding. Others apply “one strike” depending on the circumstances of each case.
“The whole thing boils down to the tension between the rights of the community and the rights of the individual,” said Jacqueline Rogers, senior fellow at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs. “Any policy you adopt has potential for abuse.”
Kay Howeth, executive director of the St. Michael’s Housing Authority, has a two-strike system. If she suspects drug use in a particular apartment — because of suspicious behavior she sees or information from police reports or newspaper stories — she puts the renter on notice. If there is a second incident, the resident cannot say he did not know the rules when Howeth evicts him.
Howeth proudly reported that none of the three families she has evicted on drug charges since 1998 challenged it in court — a sign that her two-strike system is working.
Other housing managers said that when they try to enforce one-strike policies they have been shot down in court. They said some judges have called one-strike language too strong, especially if those accused of drug activity have not been formally charged with or convicted of a crime.
More than 80 eviction orders in Baltimore have been derailed since 1997 because judges did not find sufficient evidence of drug activity to throw out residents, spokesman Kevin Brown said.
In Elkton, housing director Cynthia Osborne enacted a two-tier policy — one strike for people who signed the lease, two strikes if the offender is a caregiver, child or visitor. She started the system after a judge refused to evict a family because he was not convinced the adult renter knew about her son’s drug dealing.
“We’re seen as housing of last resort, so we knew there were going to be quite a number of people who would challenge us on the one-strike rule” Osborne said. “Even though this activity was affecting everyone in the community, the fact that we are putting someone out on the street made us change the policy.”
Baltimore City District Judge Jamey Weitzman said she has found it difficult to apply the one-strike standard, especially in cases where the main renter is not involved in drug activity. She once ruled against evicting a grandmother from public housing because she did not believe the woman realized her grandson was peddling narcotics a few blocks from home.
“I do recognize public policy reasons for wanting to maintain as strict a shop as possible, but having someone evicted is an extreme interference of their rights,” Weitzman said. “You have to be sure that the person knows about or is enabling the drug activity before you can actually remove them from their home.”
But Howeth said eviction is an important tool for housing officials, since many of her residents have come to accept nearby drug activity as a fact of life.
“So many of them think they don’t have that right to keep drugs out,” Howeth said. “These are poor people who don’t have a lot of self-esteem, and it’s just an accepted part of their life. They just don’t realize how much power they could have to keep their properties free of drugs.”
For most Maryland housing directors, “one strike” is a good, objective guide that in practice cannot be applied on even terms.
Laurie Mason, executive director of the Frostburg Housing Authority, has tried to use it without prejudice. But she faced the law’s harsh reality last year she executed her first-ever drug evictions from the 100-unit district last year.
“You’re dealing with poor people that otherwise would be homeless if you put them out,” Mason said. “You’ve got to have some compassion.”