In public housing, one strike and you're out on street Some residents, critics say city going too far in bid to reduce crime

November 18, 1996|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

With freshly starched and ironed curtains at the windows, a meticulously clean apartment and a ceramic plaque embossed with the Lord's Prayer hanging on the living room wall, 67-year-old Lillie Scott appears to be a model public housing tenant.

The six-year resident of McCulloh Homes in West Baltimore tends her potted plants, occasionally fries chicken for a neighbor and regularly bakes for church fund-raisers to help the needy.

But her landlord, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, has been trying to evict Scott since her 27-year-old granddaughter, Tammy Taylor, was arrested July 22 a few blocks from Scott's apartment on a cocaine-possession charge. Taylor told police she lived with her grandmother, Scott says.

In eviction papers, the housing authority charges that Scott violated her lease by not ensuring that members of her household or guests avoided criminal activity.

Scott says she is being punished unfairly because her granddaughter doesn't live with her -- and was not visiting her the day she was arrested, a claim Scott's neighbor confirms.

"I would never let Tammy live with me because she lives a life I don't approve of; she's constantly moving from place to place," Scott said. "That's not the type of life I live.

"I asked her why she gave my address, and she said she thought they might go easier on her if they knew she lived with her grandmother."

The case against Scott, who says she shares her two-bedroom apartment with her son, Maurice Scott, 44, is one of 149 public housing cases in which residents have faced eviction under a crackdown that began eight months ago as part of a "one strike and you're out" policy.

In March, President Clinton ordered the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to give public housing agencies the authority to evict residents when they break or a guest breaks the law -- even if not convicted of a crime.

City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said the new HUD guidelines reinforce a clause in the city's leases that was enforced sporadically.

But with the new emphasis from Washington, the demolition of hundreds of outdated public housing units and 35,000 families on Baltimore's waiting list, Henson last spring ordered a crackdown on violators among the 17,300 families in public housing.

"The residents and the board of commissioners have said overwhelmingly, 'We don't want people involved in criminal activity living in these few units we got.' I'm enforcing what they told me to do," Henson said.

He said he was not familiar with Scott's case but would look into it and any others that residents ask him to review.

"I've looked into 20 cases like this, and I have not overturned one yet," Henson said. "Usually it turns out that the child or the grandchild lives with the person."

Typically, housing authority officials investigate such matters by interviewing the manager of the tenant's complex and neighbors.

Marla Hollandsworth, a professor in the University of Baltimore Law Clinic, which has handled about six "one-strike" cases since spring and won them all, says such cases are part of an overall new "get-tough" policy by the housing authority that's resulting in the eviction of some innocent people.

"Recently, the housing authority, on several fronts, has become more stringent -- I think excessively so -- in the prosecution of breach-of-lease actions," said Hollandsworth.

For example, public housing residents' income must be verified yearly to make sure they remain eligible -- something that until spring was fairly routine and resulted in the eviction of only the worst violators, Hollandsworth said.

But increasingly, people face eviction for such failings as not being home for a re-inspection.

"I know one woman who had to leave home because her sister had suffered a heart attack," Hollandsworth said. "She received a letter saying her lease was being terminated for failure to allow inspection.

"Before, she would have received a letter asking her to reschedule the visit. But now they just send you an eviction notice."

When asked about that case, Henson said, "That sounds like an aberration."

Most one-strike cases have been resolved in the housing authority's favor, according to its records.

Tenants may appeal one-strike cases in court. A grievance procedure was discontinued because it allowed cases to drag on for months, housing authority officials said.

Court records show that prosecutors have placed the case against Scott's granddaughter on the inactive docket, meaning it can be revived for up to one year.

Scott's Aug. 10 eviction notice ordered her to vacate the apartment by Sept. 30. With free help from a Legal Aid lawyer, she has been able to postpone that action pending a court hearing.

Meanwhile, she says, she has become a bundle of nerves, spending her days collecting written character references from such friends as her longtime mail carrier and the Rev. Vernon Dobson, pastor of Union Baptist Church.

Dobson came to know Scott when she cared for a member of his church who died recently of cancer.

"Pardon my expression, but this waiting has been hell," Scott said, looking around her apartment. "I don't know what I would do if I lost this place."

The former domestic worker says she can't afford decent housing on the commercial market.

"I just don't know what I'll do," she said.

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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