Public Housing Residents Sue

They Oppose Annapolis Ban On Nonresidents Whom The Housing Authority Deems Detrimental

August 13, 2009|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

Suing on behalf of residents who say their invited guests and relatives are barred from coming to their homes, the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the Annapolis Housing Authority's practice of banning people from the public housing agency's property.

The lawsuit against the authority, the city and others was filed Wednesday in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court by 11 people. It comes as the housing authority is in the midst of reworking its banning policy, which was enacted in 1994 and which allows the agency to ban from its 10 complexes "non-residents who are detrimental to the overall quality of life for public housing residents."

Proponents said the ban list helps remove troublemakers. How many people are banned was not clear yesterday, but estimates ran from fewer than 200 to about 500. Some people who are banned have not been charged with anything and others have had minor charges dropped.

In 2000, the city of Frederick settled a similar lawsuit, agreeing to ban visitors only if they had been convicted of or charged with a violent or drug crime at or near public housing, and there is a provision for exceptions.

The Annapolis lawsuit contends the policy is unconstitutional and tears families apart, and the suit asks the court to stop its enforcement.

"There is a real tension between a tenant's right to control their own home and the policy that gives the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis control over who comes to visit people who live in public housing," said ACLU Foundation of Maryland's legal director, Deborah Jeon.

But others say bans serve the communities well.

"We find it is an effective way of having people who are convicted of crimes or who are dangerous people for other reasons to be off public housing property," said Howard Pinskey, the authority's chair.

He and others in the lawsuit would not comment directly on the court action.

The practice, he said, has the support of many residents, though the policy is being reviewed for possible changes.

A dispute over the policy has been brewing since last year.

Carl O. Snowden, the director of the attorney general office's civil rights office, asked the authority to review the practice after some residents complained about procedures and enforcement.

The ACLU said it was vague and illegal, and created a list that was easy to get on and hard to get off.

"I don't think it's fair," said Esther Sharps, 71, the lead plaintiff, who said it is a hardship and isolating for her to have six grandsons unable to come to her Annapolis Gardens home. She received permission twice for her family to gather in her home after the death of relatives, she said. She depends on them to take her to doctors' appointments and shopping.

One grandson recently successfully petitioned the agency to take him off the list.

"I used to have to go across the street to the bus stop to wait for him to pick me up," Sharps said.

Other plaintiffs include parents who can't come to their young children's homes.

People who are banned and found on the property can be prosecuted for trespassing, said Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee. Residents who allow them there face the possibility of eviction, under terms of their leases.

Last year, under a $100,000 pact, city police assumed greater enforcement in the public housing communities.

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