National guidelines for the eviction of public housing tenants who have had one brush with the law is taking a huge toll on already hard-pressed Chicago neighborhoods.
Jessica Moore showed up at Chicago's Daley Center, shaken and without a lawyer. She had a bad feeling about how things might play out in court.
A lawyer hired by a company that manages Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) properties approached her. She followed him into courtroom 1302 and was ushered into a small conference area tucked away in the corner. A steady stream of eviction cases were called at the bench as they talked.
The CHA wanted to cut a deal: If she agreed to move out, the agency would let her and her six children stay seven days.
“I'll take it to trial,” she told him.
Moore, 39, is just one of hundreds of low-income residents the CHA has taken to eviction court for violating the agency's one-strike policy during the past six years. The rule is part of a set of national guidelines created in 1996 to make public housing developments safer by ridding them of people who commit crime.
But there was a problem. Moore was no criminal.
When the national policy was drafted, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development empowered local housing authorities to tailor their own one-strike rules for best rooting out criminal activity as long as it was relevant to the peace and safety of its residents.
By the CHA's standard, all arrests are subject to one-strike. As a result, tenants have lost their homes over nonviolent offenses, including shoplifting and marijuana possession.
The CHA had also chosen to evict leaseholders under one-strike for crimes committed by their children and anyone living in the unit, even if the crime occurred on property not owned by the CHA. Tenants are also culpable if their guests commit a crime on CHA property.
A new Chicago Reporter analysis found that from 2005 to 2010 the CHA opened 1,390 one-strike cases. The vast majority of them—86 percent in 2010—had nothing to do with the primary leaseholder.
When people were arrested, the person named on the lease was automatically summoned to eviction court, a civil matter, even though the criminal court cases were still pending in many instances.
If the CHA had considered how those cases played out in criminal court, it would have discovered that more than half of the defendants were found not guilty. Their cases were thrown out or they were never prosecuted, the Reporter analysis found. Instead, one in three tenants whose criminal cases were tossed out or ended with a “not guilty” verdict, had their entire household evicted or moved out without a fight, the analysis shows.
CHA lawyer Scott Ammarell said that his agency takes an across-the-board approach to pursuing a one-strike eviction policy, regardless of the severity of the charges.
“If we get an arrest report and the charge on the arrest report is an offense that will end somebody's eligibility to continue to receive a subsidy from the federal government, we pursue it,” he said.
It's a policy that newly elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel appears to stand by.
The mayor's office declined an interview but issued a statement that said, “The Chicago Housing Authority has an obligation to provide the 30,000 individuals who currently reside in public housing with affordable and safe housing. The safety of CHA residents, its children and families as well as its neighbors is a top priority.”
Some critics say that the evictions are not only too harsh, but also premeditated.
Earlier this year, the CHA demolished the last of its 51 high-rise public housing buildings. It was part of the agency's Plan for Transformation. Eligible residents will get new units in mixed-income neighborhoods or subsidies to move into the private rental market. By barring many from public housing, some speculate that the CHA can avoid having to move them into replacement units, which are currently in short supply.
The Reporter's analysis found that the number of one-strike cases across the city increased sharply in CHA developments where demolition was eminent.
One-strike cases are the only type of public housing eviction where tenants have no chance to file a grievance or request an internal hearing. Their only shot at beating the case is in civil court.
But most CHA tenants can't afford a lawyer. And they can face long odds at winning the case—even with a legal defense. Meanwhile, in the spring, the CHA attempted to revoke its “innocent tenant” clause, residents' main avenue for fending off evictions in the courtroom.
The clause gives the head of household—the person who was not arrested, even if someone in their household was—a chance to plead their innocence and protect the housing unit for the rest of the family who wasn't involved in the crime.
The CHA's proposal to revoke the clause was quashed in late June after public uproar. But the defense is becoming a moot point in most of the newest one-strike cases because the private developers hired to create mixed-income communities aren't required to consider culpability in pursuing an eviction.
That's because the innocent tenant defense is not written into the lease agreement that tenants in the privatized developments are required to adhere to. Meanwhile, the number of one-strike cases continues to climb in these developments.
“We know the game,” said Shannon Bennett an organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, which has been an outspoken critic of the policy for more than a decade. “These policies are intended to push people out.”
No Chicago community has experienced more one-strike cases than Cabrini-Green.
The CHA had 74 public housing developments sprawled across the city. Yet, roughly one in five of the one-strike arrests involved Cabrini residents.
A decade ago, nearly 13,000 people lived in the Near North Side public housing community, which was anchored by 1230 N. Burling St. and seven other decaying concrete towers.
Today, the buildings are all gone; some have been replaced by mixed-income homes, apartments and condos. Many of the new residents of the area are increasingly white and college-educated, and just 444 of the units there are for public housing.
Moore moved in when she was 23.
Her paychecks never came close to covering rent in the private market. So for more than a decade, she and her children squeezed into a two-bedroom Cabrini-Green apartment at 624 W. Division St.
When a four bedroom at 1230 N. Burling St. opened in 2005, she and her children—whose ages at the time ranged from 1 to 13—jumped at the chance to spread out. She had just quit her job as a cashier at a Walgreens and enrolled in classes part-time at Robert Morris College working toward a business degree.
She crossed paths with her boyfriend Ricky Dyer not long after moving in. Dyer had a history with Cabrini. He was born in 1983 and grew up in the development. As a teenager, he earned a reputation as a drug dealer and was given the nickname “Rickdog.” By the time he was 20, he was convicted of selling drugs. He pleaded guilty to two felony counts and was sentenced to one year in prison.
Once he got out, Dyer moved back in with his mom and steered clear of major trouble, but he had a few run-ins with police. He was arrested for trespassing and public drinking, but both cases were tossed out.
Around that time, he and Moore began dating.
By 2009, their neighborhood had changed dramatically. Moore's building was one of the last two Cabrini-Green high-rises left standing. Her building sat to the far left of a rusting gate that served as the official, but least used, entrance to the 15-story buildings known as “the whites” for their pale concrete exterior.
The other 21 mid- and high-rise buildings had been knocked down by the wrecking ball and replaced with red-brick town homes with lush shrubs, flawless concrete and quaint names, like North Town Village. Police were brought in to pay special attention to Burling Street, which was one of the last corners of the neighborhood occupied exclusively by public housing residents.
Under an agreement with the CHA, the agency and the Chicago Police Department freely exchanged arrest information. The two agencies signed off on the pact in 2000. If someone with a public housing address was arrested, or an arrest was made on the CHA's property, police automatically passed along the police report to the CHA.
Burling residents became suspicious when police began showing up by the dozens. Moore knew that all it took was a single arrest to open a criminal-activity eviction. No conviction was required. No internal investigation was launched. And Moore knew from experience that the cops patrolling her building rarely flinched at throwing cuffs on her neighbors.
“The police would come into the building each day either knocking into somebody's apartment or grabbing guys downstairs,” Moore said.
Arrests climbed as demolition of the building inched closer. Burling began to empty quickly. In the fall of 2010, only 39 of the building's 134 units were occupied. During the last 20 months that the 1230 N. Burling St. building was occupied, 19 households were hit with a one-strike eviction. The leading cause for arrest was misdemeanor marijuana possession.
Moore had a love-hate relationship with the police. On one hand, she feared them because she knew that her eldest son, Devonte, was becoming a troublemaker. At 16, he'd already been in and out of rehab after getting arrested for drugs.
While many of Moore's neighbors did their best to avoid the police, she saw them as her last hope for reining in Devonte. He was hardheaded.
“I couldn't tell him anything,” she said. She appealed to a couple of trusted cops known around Cabrini as “Eddie Murphy” and “Babyface” for their help. “I told them, 'Stop him if he's selling drugs. I don't want to get put out.'”
Nothing prepared Moore for the morning of Sept. 25, 2009, when a team of 19 officers busted down her front door just after 8 a.m. as her children slipped on their shoes and backpacks on their way out to school.
For two hours, the officers picked through Moore's four-bedroom apartment, finding $48 worth of marijuana stashed on a shelf in Devonte's bedroom. During a pat down, a dime bag of cannabis, worth $12, was recovered from Dyer's right shorts pocket. He was charged with misdemeanor pot possession.
Within days of the raid, Moore got her notice that her lease would be terminated.
The Reporter found that a growing number of families have similarly faced eviction based on low-level, misdemeanor charges. More than 70 percent of the one-strike cases involved drug possession; less than 10 percent were attributed to the drug dealing that one-strike was created largely to address.
A growing number of these cases are based on low-level crimes. In 2005, 40 percent of all one-strike arrests involved a misdemeanor charge. By 2010, that figure had grown to 76 percent, the Reporter found. A disproportionate number of those arrests involved black teens and men living in the two rapidly gentrifying Chicago wards, the 2nd and 27th, which have flipped from being majority black to racially mixed over the past decade.
Alderman Walter Burnett, whose 27th Ward includes Cabrini where he grew up, chalked up the spike in arrests in the area to the increased pressure city officials, the CHA and police face from new homeowners.
“Just look at 1230 Burling,” Burnett said. “Those [neighbors] complained about the building every day. Every day. Why? Because they wanted the building down. Why did they want the building down? One, because they thought it was affecting their property values.”
Moore fought for her apartment for six months. When her trial date finally came, police testified about Dyer's pot possession. She lost, and a judge gave her and her children seven days to move.
“I'm like, 'Where I'm gonna go with six kids?'” she asked.
In a gesture of mercy, Moore said, the CHA extended her move-out date to 60 days.
Cook County Sherriff's police hauled the last bit of broken furniture out of her apartment on June 30, 2010. Nine months later, the Burling high-rise was demolished.
What happened to Moore, Burnett said, runs counter to what the CHA is given millions in federal anti-poverty dollars each year to do: stabilize families.
“CHA should be thinking about how to keep people in those apartments. They should be advocating toward helping people to keep their places, not finding ways to put them out,” said Burnett, who was convicted of armed robbery, a felony, at 17 when he was joy riding with friends in Kankakee.
“Everybody deserves a second chance.”
Angela Caputo, a journalist with The Chicago Reporter, was a 2011 Fellow in the John Jay/Joyce Gun Violence Reporting Project. A complete version of this story, along with a multimedia package and sidebars, is available at http://www.chicagoreporter.com/issue/2011/09/cha-evictions. Dylan Cinti, Alexis Pope, Caitlin Huston and Louis McGill also helped research.