Soundings

Public Housing: Who Speaks for Tenants?
Summer 1994

When the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit challenging weapons sweeps in Chicago’s public housing projects, many tenants disagreed with the ACLU’s argument that the sweeps violated their Fourth Amendment rights. The Central Advisory Council, an elected body consisting of the presidents of each of the tenant advisory councils at Chicago’s 19 housing projects, voted 18 to 1 to support the sweeps. The council’s members hired their own lawyers, who persuaded U.S. District Judge Wayne Anderson not to certify the lawsuit as a class action—telling the ACLU that it could represent only the four individual tenants who were its clients. It is extremely rare for a class-action lawsuit to be challenged by members of the class that those bringing the suit claim to represent.

“It really undercuts the moral authority of the ACLU,” says Michael Pace, a lawyer with Jenner & Block, Chicago’s largest law firm, which is representing the Central Advisory Council free of charge. “It’s now clear that our clients have this clearly identifiable interest that’s going to have to be recognized the next time the ACLU brings one of these suits.” The council subsequently collected five thousand signatures from tenants on a petition supporting its stance.

Nonetheless, Judge Anderson ruled in April that, barring certain unspecified kinds of emergencies, the housing authority could no longer conduct warrantless sweeps. The council members have asked him to reconsider, and the housing authority is seeking federal funding to improve security. Meanwhile, the Clinton administration has proposed security guidelines for housing authorities across the country, including provisions for locking building entrances and lobbies, frisking suspicious-looking people, and including a clause in leases under which tenants would agree to warrantless searches under some circumstances.

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