Housing ban policy challenged

Annapolis defends visitor screening as safety measure

October 04, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,julie.scharper@baltsun.com

When Wayne Blair Jr. picks up his 7-year-old son for a visit, he meets him at a gas station. He isn't allowed to knock on the door of the boy's home or see his bedroom or play basketball with him on the courts near the public housing community where the child lives with his mother.

Blair, 29, was barred from all Annapolis public housing after being accused of possessing drugs at one of the housing complexes in 2000. And four years after his release from prison in another drug case, that ban remains in effect.

Even though he says he's turned his life around, and has been charged with nothing more serious than trespassing. Even though he has worked for the city for the past three years.

"I want my son to have a better life than I've had. I'm trying to be a positive role model," Blair said. "But this makes it hard to see him."

Police and officials from the Housing Authority of Annapolis say that banning proven troublemakers from public housing is an invaluable tool in the fight against crime and the effort to improve life in the complexes.

But critics say that the practice is unfair, unevenly enforced and ill-defined. The head of the state attorney general office's civil rights office is asking the city to take another look at the policy. And the American Civil Liberties Union says it is illegal and should be scrapped.

Many public housing residents say that the practice separates friends and families.

At one high-rise building, a woman was prevented from visiting her ailing mother after getting in a dispute with a security guard. Some elderly residents find that nearly all their children and grandchildren are banned from visiting them.

"It's like they're running a prison," said Terry Ann Marlow, 62, whose daughter did not visit her for more than a month after a security guard apparently told her she was banned. "They make rules up as they go along."

About 430 people are banned from visiting the city's 10 public housing communities for infractions ranging from being caught with open containers of alcohol to attempted murder, according to a list distributed in August. The vast majority have been banned for possessing or dealing drugs. Some of the offenses date back as far as 2000.

Carl Snowden, the director of the attorney general office's civil rights office, asked the city to review banning procedures because he believes they are unfairly enforced.

"When you treat a person with an open container the same way you treat a murderer or a rapist, I don't think it makes a lot of sense," Snowden said. "People in public housing need to feel that the process is transparent, judicious and fair, and then I think you'll find more people supporting it."

Deborah Jeon, the legal director of Maryland's ACLU office, wrote a letter urging the Annapolis police to stop enforcing bans because she believes the practice is illegal. The court has ruled that banning violates state law in considering similar cases in public housing communities in Frederick, she said.

"The law says that it is the tenants, not the landlord, who determines who has access to a property," Jeon said, adding that this applies both to tenants in private apartment complexes as well as public housing.

But Eric Brown, the director of the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis, said that banning has been practiced for decades and is necessary.

"The overarching thing is trying to make sure we keep people off our property who engage in bad acts on our property," he said. "It's not totally draconian, but we are trying to be sure that anyone living at any of our properties can enjoy their home in peace."

"The policy, as it stands - we're satisfied with it," he said.

People can be banned if they are caught breaking the law on public housing property, said housing authority security director Anita Jackson. A ban can be imposed even if charges against a person are later dropped, she said.

Police said the policy helps them maintain order by removing troublemakers and drug dealers.

"It readily identifies those people who are committing crimes in public housing communities and it allows us to easily remove those problem people from the community," said Lt. Brian Della of the Annapolis Police.

Some residents wholeheartedly support banning.

"Since they started the banning over here, people aren't killing people like they used to be," said Leola Forester, 56, who lives in Eastport Terrace. She said that she has seen banning more strictly enforced in the past few months and believes that it has made her community more secure.

But Marlow and her daughter, Torie Wells-Glover, said the policy is unfairly enforced.

Police forced Wells-Glover to leave the high-rise building where her ailing mother lives after she got in a dispute with a security guard. Wells-Glover, a 42-year-old homemaker, arrived at the Glenwood building after midnight to tend to her mother, who was feeling lightheaded. Marlow suffers from breast cancer and high blood pressure and is nearly blind.

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