Bolder Than Kings

April 27, 1994|By BARBARA SAMUELS

''The poorest man in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter; but the King of England cannot enter -- all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!'' -- William Pitt

What the king dares not, the Chicago Housing Authority does, with the backing of the Clinton administration. They want families to agree in advance to give up privacy as a condition of obtaining a public-housing lease.

The right to privacy offers little protection from a bullet. Faced with the terrible choice of bargaining away constitutional rights for our children's safety, most of us would give up the rights. But it is a false bargain. Not only do these housing searches damage bedrock American principles of freedom, they do little to protect the safety of housing residents. No one would ever suggest that homeowners in Ruxton or Potomac should be subjected to government intrusion into their homes in order to live safely in those communities. They expect the police to protect them from crime. Public-housing families are just as entitled to adequate public safety.

Giving in to unconstitutional searches has more to do with public relations than public safety. After years of neglect by previous administrations, the Clinton administration should be working to improve the general living conditions, including security, in all of the nation's public housing. In Baltimore and other cities, the police virtually abandoned public housing to the gangs and drug dealers, interceding only when violence threatened to spill over into other neighborhoods.

City police departments, stretched thin and strapped for resources, left the job to the housing authorities, which had to hire off- duty police officers to perform infrequent foot patrols or had to form their own undertrained and underqualified ''housing police'' forces. Scarce federal dollars that should have been spent for basic maintenance and tenant services went instead to pay for the rudimentary police services other neighborhoods take for granted.

Unlike luxury high-rises with door keepers and security guards, public-housing high-rises were open to the drug gangs, which seized control of hallways and stairwells. Vacant units left behind by fleeing tenants became havens for criminals. In Baltimore and elsewhere, project recreation centers were closed, leaving idle teen-agers an easy mark for gangs and drug dealers.

To assure the safety of the children growing up in public housing, vertical police patrols in the buildings and foot patrols of the grounds are needed, along with secure building entrances and vacant units, clean common areas and repaired apartments. And the kids need productive activities to keep them busy.

Where these strategies have been tried, they have worked. In Baltimore, public-housing residents and Commissioner Dan Henson developed a modified version of the Chicago sweeps that leaves the Constitution intact. A lease clause permits entry into apartments for maintenance inspections on 48 hours advance notice. Instead of conducting warrantless searches for guns and drugs, Baltimore's ECHO (Extraordinary Housekeeping and Cleaning Operation) gets guns, drugs and criminals out of the buildings by giving them 48 hours to clear out. Then the real work begins. City sanitation and housing-authority maintenance workers descend to clean common areas, board vacant units and perform deferred maintenance, while the police secure the hallways, stairwells and entrances. When the operation is complete, 24-hour security is put in place -- just as in the luxury high-rises. Commissioner Henson doesn't get to wave captured weapons in front of the television cameras, but while Chicago is bogged down in constitutional litigation, Baltimore is getting the job done.

ECHO is a short-term measure. For the longer term, Secretary Henry Cisneros has committed the Department of Housing and Urban Development to reversing a 50-year-old pattern of public-housing development that isolated poor minorities in huge inner-city enclaves like Chicago's Taylor Homes and Baltimore's Murphy Homes. He believes public-housing families need and want the same things we all do: a secure home in a safe neighborhood, with good schools and access to jobs.

The debate over warrantless searches has been a needless distraction from lasting solutions to the problems in public housing. But if it forces us to look at the ''monuments to segregation'' we built, perhaps it will be worth while.

Barbara Samuels is housing attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

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