CHA must tweak one-strike

I love flowers. I’ve always loved flowers. Let me lay out in a field of daisies all day, and I’m content.

So it wasn’t too surprising that when I was about 8 years old, I grabbed a plastic flower as my mother walked my sister and me down the aisle at a crafts store. It wasn’t until we were in the parking lot loading the trunk that my mother noticed the unpaid flower still in my hand. She then scolded me and dragged me back to the checkout lady to explain what I had unwittingly done.

Children make mistakes and grow up to become adults who make mistakes. But for many of us, these kinds of mistakes don’t dramatically affect our entire families. And that’s at the center of a policy that continues to threaten the housing of people arguably most desperate for it.

In this month’s cover story, “One and done,” Angela Caputo investigates the Chicago Housing Authority’s one-strike eviction policy.  Most people who don’t live in public housing have probably never heard of it. What you did behind closed doors didn’t threaten the place where you and your family sleep.

But that’s not the case for thousands of Chicago’s poorest residents.

The one-strike policy is just that. A CHA leaseholder commits a crime–like shoplifting or marijuana possession—and then, “Bam,” they are summoned to eviction court. The CHA also initiates eviction proceedings if anyone in the residence—including teenagers—commits a crime or if someone visiting the residence commits a crime on CHA property.

It’s a policy that you can rationalize makes sense since the goal is to root out crime in public housing, making it safer for tenants. But in many of the cases that Caputo found, tenants were sent eviction notices for crimes they were never convicted of. And, in several cases, people were sent packing before their criminal cases were ever finished.

That’s the problem that I have. We’re human and fallible. And public housing, in many cases, is the last bastion of housing for poor people. If we can’t even guarantee people that, then whose job is it to house the poor? Are we really willing to say that we want families kicked out of their homes, in many cases, for very minor violations committed by their children? By themselves? By people visiting their homes?

What we should be doing is making sure that the people who get kicked out are truly the problem-makers. If I’m a renter and my company starts trouble, ban my company, not me. It’s not fair to punish entire families, forcing children into new schools, uprooting moms and dads from the security of places they’ve lived for long periods of time because of the actions of others.

Homeowners get public subsidies all the time—they’re called tax breaks. But if they’re smoking pot in their homes or caught drunk driving—even if they’re sex offenders—you don’t see them headed to foreclosure court.

We also need to make sure that the people getting kicked out are actually guilty of committing crimes. In many cases, Caputo found that the evictions proceeded even though the criminal courts hadn’t ruled on the cases. In most instances, the cases were either tossed out or the individuals were found not guilty. The CHA might want to consider waiting for a final ruling of guilt before jumping to conclusions.

Even when the person is found guilty, there should be some way people can redeem themselves. Perhaps there are a couple of strikes. Or maybe residents can get warnings before immediately getting the boot.

Not everyone who is poor is bad. And not everyone who is bad is poor. The same compassion we extend to property owners or to the middle-class and wealthy should be extended to the poor.

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