As if record snowfalls were not enough this winter, New Yorkers also suffered a string of obtuse decisions by judges, further undermining public safety in the city. With the first days of spring, a warming ray of judicial levelheadedness finally broke through. On April 19, federal district judge Loretta A. Preska ruled that the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), like every other landlord in the city, could now go to Housing Court to evict tenants who were selling drugs from their apartments. The ruling modified the 25-year-old Escalera consent decree, which had created a separate and prolonged process for such evictions.
The Legal Aid Society first filed suit against NYCHA on behalf of the Escalera family in 1967. The Escalera family was accused of keeping a dog in the apartment in violation of the agency's rules. Pedro Escalera claimed he had sold the dog, but NYCHA demanded written proof and then told him to get out.
Certainly, NYCHA should balance judiciously both the rights of tenants and the community's interest in safety. Unfortunately, balance was not on the agenda of most of the city's judges, legal-aid lawyers, and elected officials in the 1960s. Knowing that it could not defend its existing rules in court, NYCHA and the Lindsay administration caved in to the advocates and accepted elaborate new due-process rights for tenants. With four levels of review, the protection went well beyond what a private tenant could expect in Housing Court—even New York's notoriously landlord-hating Housing Court. Predictably, the eviction of drug dealers and other undesirables became much more difficult, often taking years.
When crack cocaine hit the city's housing projects in the 1980s, the cost of the Escalera consent decree became clear. It had disarmed NYCHA, making impossible the quick eviction of tenants who allowed violent drug gangs to use their apartments as distribution points. NYCHA and tenant council leaders, dismayed by the resulting erosion of safety and orderliness that harmed the law-abiding residents of the projects, went to court to modify the rules so that eviction proceedings could take place in housing court.
Legal Aid Society lawyers fought a protracted series of legal skirmishes to block such reform. They made desperate arguments in court, first asserting that drug violence had not increased in the projects and then suggesting that other drug dealers would move in to replace those evicted. Judge Preska's decision dealt a sharp blow to the rights-above-all ideology of the Legal Aid Society. It serves as a reminder, too, of why that retrograde organization should not have a virtual monopoly on taxpayer-subsidized legal services for the poor.