Commentary by Brian Davis
In 1994-1995, the Department of Housing and Urban Development began a process to re-invent the agency, which was an attempt to stave off targeted elimination by the Republican majority. HUD attempted to Block Grant many of their grants and streamlined the agency to bundle programs into larger initiatives. Block Grants are large allocations of funds to communities, with fewer strings attached, designed to replace the large number of smaller allocations that were earmarked for specific programs.
The Department survived a cut in funding of around 27 percent. Many programs were restructured or eliminated, and staff was cut. Locally, dollars from the McKinney programs were reduced and the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority received a $13 million cut, and was forced to trim some of its security and administrative staff.
While all of these dire projections of HUD ending were still being debated, in March, President Clinton stepped in to eliminate criminal and drug pushers from public housing on a national level. At the same time that HUD is attempting to return funding priorities and decisions to a local level, Clinton wants a national "One Strike and You’re Out" policy.
This policy attempts to create a safer environment for tenants, and keep criminals and criminal activity out of the Public Housing units on a national level. Clinton championed the Toledo Housing Authority and the Macon, Georgia programs, which were touted as demonstrating "dramatic results" by adopting the "One Strike and You’re Out" policy.
One resident of the Lakeview Terrace Projects looked over the policy and felt that public housing was an entitlement, and should be more inclusive and not as restrictive. Tony Walker, a tenant of CMHA and formerly homeless person, said, "They should give people a second chance, and give a probation period of a year to let people get back into a house setting."
Neal Manly, of Legal Aid in Cleveland, felt there was little change in the new policy. "They still have to prove criminal activity to evict, and tenants have some protection from the courts." The standard property leases usually state that criminal behavior is grounds for termination of the lease.
HUD is providing incentives to public housing authorities (PHA) to implement the "One Strike" policy, and a PHA that does not participate will be given a lower rating in the tight competition for dollars. In 1996, legislation was passed that gave new authority to CMHA to deny prospective tenants units on the basis of illegal drug related activity and alcohol abuse. CMHA was encouraged to screen individuals for criminal background. Local law enforcement agencies are mandated to make criminal conviction records available for use by CMHA.
Walker said, "They are not giving everyone a fair shot. Anyone growing up on the streets of Cleveland is found to have two to three felonies by the age of 35. Everyone should be given a fair shot at food clothing, and shelter. Those are necessities. Everyone is entitled to these three things, so everyone should have an equal shot at CMHA housing."
Scott Pollock, Executive Assistant at CMHA, said that applicants with a criminal background are not put on the bottom of the pile in selection for a CMHA units. "[A criminal background] does not necessarily preclude a person from getting a unit...There is an evaluation process," Pollock said. He went on to say that an ex-offender’s concern about paying their debt to society and then not being able to find housing was well-founded. Pollock said, "Personally, I feel we are an unforgiving society."
Charles See, Director of Community Re-Entry, a program which re-integrates offenders into society acknowledged that it will be more difficult for his clients to obtain housing at CMHA. He said that they would be forced into the private sector, and be faced with either high rent or sub-standard housing.
See agreed that the "One Strike" might be viewed by the ex-offender population as punitive, but felt CMHA needed to provide a safe atmosphere for tenants. "It does have the appearance of selective discrimination. They are addressing what they believe to be a problem population. [The policy] has some punitive repercussions, and it may exacerbate the frustrations of the ex-offender, but it is not the intention of CMHA to alienate.
The "One Strike and You’re Out" Guidelines that HUD developed state, "[Public Housing Authorities] must adopt written policies governing admissions that describe the criteria and standard to be applied" to protect an applicants due process rights. It goes on to state that these policies must be posted and available to applicants upon request.
When a Homeless Grapevine reporter went to the CMHA application department on Church Street on the near west side there was no posted policy on the admission procedure. When the Grapevine reporter asked for a copy of the procedure, and the process for reviewing applications, the CMHA staff person became very adversarial and demanded to know the reason for the request and who the reporter was representing.
The Grapevine reporter did not reveal his identity, but said that the information was public record. The staff member left and returned with a supervisor who gave a copy of the CMHA preferences for housing, but did not have written information on the review process. They directed the Grapevine reporter to the CMHA law offices.
Pollock responded to the lack of written notification of the "One Strike" policy at the admission office by saying, "Not to make excuses, remember, that this is just a new initiative by the President. It is not law, so to speak, yet." He did agree that an explanation of the application process was needed.
Both Pollock and Manly agreed that the policy would stand up in court and was carefully written not to violate the Ohio Landlord Tenant Law. When asked about what this policy does for CMHA’s already damaged image in the community, Pollock said that all depended on the media. He went on to explain, "CMHA residents, like people anywhere, are concerned about having good neighbors, and CMHA has instituted tougher screening and eviction procedures to ensure that this happens. "
Walker, a resident at CMHA, did wonder how many innocent people will be touched by the One Strike policy. He wondered how many innocent residents or relatives of criminals will be quickly dismissed from CMHA before the policy is given some objective oversight. He also said that policies do not deter crime.
Why would HUD, on the one hand claim to turn decisions back to the localities, then implement a national policy in the PHA’s on an issue usually reserved for local jurisdiction oversight—crime deterrence? One obvious explanation is the 1996 is a presidential election year which usually propels every issue into the political arena.
CMHA spokesman Pollock did acknowledge that the upcoming election may have had some impact on the release of the "One Strike" policy. "I am not going to say that there isn’t a little bit of election year politics, but the sense is to take back public housing so they have a safe environment," Pollock said.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published June 1996-July 1996 Issue 16