Drug Housing Law Hurts Battered Women
Aaronica Warren was battered, bruised and bleeding, the result of a beating she had just taken from her ex-boyfriend. It was Leap Year Day, Feb. 29, 2000, and she was about to take a leap of her own.
Warren picked up the phone and called the police.
Eight days later, under a law that requires authorities to hold eviction hearings for public housing tenants whenever any resident or guest of the home is arrested for drug or violent crimes in or near the residence, Warren received an eviction notice, the result of her plea to police in the Detroit suburb of Ypsilanti to protect her from the man who was beating her.
"I asked myself, many times, 'How could the city of Ypsilanti allow the enforcement of a policy that forces battered women and their babies into homelessness?'" said Warren, now 23 and the mother of a 3-year-old son.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 that produced Warren's notice and thousands like it. Though the guidelines, commonly referred to as the "one-strike" law, were intended primarily to root out drug-related violence in federally subsidized housing projects, the law has unintentionally put battered women at risk of losing their homes, allowing housing officials to evict any public-housing resident or visitor who has been convicted of a felony that occurred there or nearby -- as well as others who live in the household.
"We can't allow the whole of a housing complex to be destroyed because some folks come in intent on abusing and hurting other people," then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros said in 1996, when officials began enforcing the law. "We have to make these developments, in a common-sense way, inhabitable again."
Women Stand to Lose Homes if They Report Abuse
But Juley Fulcher, public policy director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said women from around the country are being put on the street because they report being beaten. Women like Aaronica Warren, she said, can choose to ask for help and risk losing their homes, or choose not to report the violence and risk being beaten again.
Because eviction hearings are held by local housing authorities, rather than in state or federal court, and because the law does not make gender distinctions for assault, it is difficult to say how many women have been evicted as a result of domestic violence reports.
There has only been one complaint relating to a one-strike eviction for domestic violence to reach federal court, said Lenora Lapidus, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project. In that case, a pretrial hearing in Oregon found that applying the one-strike policy to victims of domestic violence constituted sex discrimination that violated the Fair Housing Act. The evicted woman was compensated and now lives in a different state.
The woman's landlord, CBM Group, based in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"We don't have statistics of exactly how many battered women have been kicked out of their housing because of something their batterer did," Fulcher said. "We do know anecdotally lots of stories from around the country where this is happening."
High Court Upholds Evictions of Three Elderly Women
In the ruling on Rucker v. HUD, Supreme Court justices reversed an appeals court ruling on the law and reinstated the evictions of four elderly Oakland, Calif., residents -- three of them women -- whose children, grandchildren or caretakers were arrested for minor drug violations. Although Tuesday's ruling addressed only the drug-related provisions of the law, it would likely be cited as a precedent if its other criminal provisions were tested in court.
But the law shouldn't apply to domestic violence cases, Lapidus said.
"There's absolutely nothing in the legislative history that indicates that this was meant to apply to victims of domestic violence, whereas there are certainly indications that it should apply in the drug context," Lapidus said.
The law, however, holds particular risks for women. Over 5 million people live in public housing nationally; most are minorities, and most of these households are headed by women, according to statistics released in 2000 by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's department of urban and regional planning.
Research shows that women living in poverty are at greater risk of violence than other women. A National Family Violence Survey found that rates of violence against women with annual incomes below $10,000 are more than 3.5 times those found in households with incomes above $40,000.
A 1999 study by the Joint Center for Poverty Research in one low-income neighborhood in Chicago showed that 33 percent of welfare recipients and 25 percent of low-income non-recipients had experienced "severe aggression" in adulthood by a partner. A 1997 Harvard study of low-income housed and homeless mothers in Worcester, Mass., reported that 32 percent of the women had experienced severe physical violence in the last two years.
"Tenants who are living in subsidized housing are desperately in need of their housing and so to hold them responsible for actions of others that they might not even be aware of and might not have even taken place in their apartment is illogical at best," Lapidus said.
As for Aaronica Warren, a technical error voided her eviction notice. The ACLU of Michigan, however, has taken up her case, suing the Ypsilanti Housing Commission and its executive director in federal district court for causing her emotional distress.
Warren's escape from eviction is the exception, not the rule, Fulcher added.
"I'm sympathetic to the reasons behind the one-strike policy," Fulcher said. "I think we understand what the goal was: to make these public-housing facilities livable and reasonably free of criminal behavior.
"It's a laudable goal," she said. "There's just a real question whether that particular policy has the right impact."
Tom Schram is chair of the National Writers Union of Michigan and the former publisher of the Detroit Sunday Journal.