The crack epidemic has wreaked havoc on New York City's public housing. "Tenants are afraid to go into their buildings," says Diane Jackson, a tenant leader and 24-year resident of Brooklyn's Cooper Park project. "Drugs are dealt 24 hours a day; robberies and assaults are up; dealers have commandeered elevators and lobbies."
But according to the Legal Aid Society, such perceptions are the product of "exaggerations in the media." In a legal battle that pits Legal Aid against the poor people the government pays the organization to represent, Legal Aid is arguing that drug-related crime in the projects is no worse than it was a quarter-century ago.
At stake is the procedure for evicting drug dealers from housing projects. In 1971 the Housing Authority signed a consent decree in a Legal Aid Society case, requiring the authority to complete a byzantine administrative process before it can bring any eviction motion to court. The case was one of many-including, most prominently, the 1970 Supreme Court ruling in Goldberg v. Kelly—in which the courts imposed severe administrative burdens on government agencies that dispense benefits and services to the poor. In this case the decree created a process that can easily last two years, as drug dealers conduct business as usual.
In August 1993 the Housing Authority moved to modify the decree, seeking the power to bypass the administrative process and go directly to court when a tenant is suspected of dealing drugs from his apartment-as any other private or public landlord in the state can already do. The Legal Aid Society immediately opposed the request, denying the authority's assertion that an increase in drug-related crime had caused serious deterioration in the quality of life in the projects. Legal Aid filed its objection on behalf of all public housing tenants, though it had consulted none.
Elected tenant representatives, with the aid of the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities, are now seeking to join the Housing Authority as plaintiffs in the suit, arguing that Legal Aid is not representing their interests. Tenant leader Jackson, for one, wonders "who the Legal Aid Society thinks they're helping."
She has an idea, however. Legal Aid lawyers, after all, represent residents in the very administrative procedure the society is seeking to preserve. Says Jackson: "Legal Aid is looking out for its own jobs."