Contributing Editor

CHICAGO ( – A Chicago Housing Authority plan for changes in its residency policies has drawn outrage from residents and civil liberties activists.

Already under fire for its years-long Plan for Transformation that has demolished public housing facilities and dislocated thousands of residents, the CHA now plans to require drug testing for all adult residents and applicants. It also plans to eliminate its “innocent tenant defense” that impacts residents when a relative or guest is arrested for a crime.

Lewis A. Jordan, the Authority’s chief executive officer, tried to assure a vocal, capacity audience at a public hearing that the changes are “just at the proposal stage” and nothing will be done until after public feedback.


What has been proposed, however, is “based on observations and feedback information we’ve gotten from the public … to make (residents) feel safer,” he said.

The “innocent tenant defense” policy applies when a relative or guest of a lease holder is arrested for a drug-related or violent crime. The policy allows tenants to stay in their residence if they prove in court they had no knowledge of the illegal activity.

A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision has upheld such evictions, but the CHA has continued allowing the “innocent tenant defense” policy.

“I applaud and support the CHA’s effort to reduce crime … but eliminating the language that affords innocent tenants the right to assert a defense will do nothing to reduce crime. All it will do is assure that innocent tenants are evicted,” said attorney Lawrence Wood of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Angela Green and Audrey Motes are two mothers facing eviction due to the arrest of a relative. Both women say the relatives were not on their lease and the CHA is attempting to further reduce public housing residents from their mixed income dwellings.

Ms. Green said her son was arrested as a result of an altercation in a CHA building other than her own. Activist Ranoule Tatum’s daughter has been subpoenaed in the case where arrests were made because a knife and “inappropriate statements” were involved.

“Unlike others, I have to be responsible and accountable for my child’s actions,” said Mr. Tatum, a public housing resident whose teenage daughter lives with him. “But even there, the policy shouldn’t be that cut and dry. And it absolutely shouldn’t hold me accountable for my older children.”

“They tried to get me to plea bargain in exchange for six months probation and barring my son from my building,” offered Ms. Moats, whose son was arrested on a drug charge in another part of the city. “But I didn’t go for that. Why do I have to be held accountable for the actions of my grown son?”

Ms. Moats added that her son was not convicted of the charge.

The plan to force adult residents to take annual drug tests drew particularly strong criticism from senior citizens, many of whom said their privacy would be invaded because it exposes identification of prescription medications many of them take.

“The U.S. Supreme Court had held that suspicionless drug-testing by the government is an unreasonable search” and in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Shalshak Levi told the public hearing panel. “Just because the government has a stereotypical view or assumes a person more than likely will do drugs if they move inside of public housing … is not concrete and on its face does not pass constitutional muster.”

“The whole policy is unfair and unconstitutional,” said 3rd ward alderman Pat Dowell, who sat with senior citizens from her ward at the hearing. “One lady said we can’t blame the illnesses of America (on poor people). And that’s the bottom line. We have to find the resources and political will in this country to invest in our children, our infrastructure and jobs. We have disinvested from the people.”

The public comment phase ends June 16, after which the CHA will submit its findings and recommendations to its board of directors. If the drug test requirement is implemented, the CHA will become the only public housing agency in the country with such a policy.