Critics of the unanimous Supreme Court decision handed down on March 26, which upheld the right of local public housing authorities to kick out entire households when any member sells or uses illegal drugs while in a public housing apartment, say that it has institutionalized injustice. Why punish an innocent mother, the naysayers ask, for the criminal activity of her son?
However well intentioned, the critics couldn’t be more wrong. Drug trafficking is a grave problem in public housing. The Chicago Housing Authority, to take just one example, has described its own system as “some of the worst housing in America”—“a large stock of physically obsolete family housing plagued with crime and drugs.” The Court has understood a key point about restoring the social fabric in such bleak settings. On average, the single parent households that today dominate public housing simply have a tougher time controlling children, teenage boys in particular, than do two-parent families, and it’s the kids who drive the drug trade. For a single mother who wants desperately to steer her kids in the right direction, the eviction law offers a big stick. She can credibly threaten a teenager who is hanging out with the wrong crowd, “If you don’t cut it out, we’ll all be out on the street.”
As for households that don’t (or can’t) maintain order: why should the law-abiders have to put up with a neighbor’s tacit acceptance (or worse, active encouragement) of crime? As Chief Justice Rehnquist observed, “Regardless of knowledge, a tenant who cannot control drug crime, or other criminal activities which threaten the health or safety of other residents, is a threat to other residents and the project.” And why should taxpayers provide subsidized housing to such tenants, especially when housing projects have years-long waiting lists?
If there’s any shortcoming in the Court’s decision, it’s that it doesn’t give owners of private housing a comparable power to kick out malefactors. If anyone needs a big stick, it’s the small, struggling neighborhood property owner—perhaps paying his mortgage with the help of rental income—who’s just discovered that drug dealers have taken over one of his apartments. The prevalence of the quasi-Marxist assumption that landlords (many of whom in poorer neighborhoods are recent immigrants trying hard to make ends meet) are all out to price-gouge and arbitrarily remove tenants they don’t like has left cities with housing court systems that make eviction nearly impossible. In New York, housing court judges have required landlords to catch drug-dealing tenants in the act before they can move to evict them; a constant flow of shady looking customers in and out of an apartment, night and day, wouldn’t be good enough.
For far too long, we’ve assumed that all residents of poor neighborhoods are helpless victims who need special protections from an unjust economic and legal system. In reality, what the law-abiding residents of poor neighborhoods really need is protection from the small but active minority of criminals in their midst. The Supreme Court has made it a lot easier to provide that protection.