Is The CHA Violating Its Residents Fourth Amendment Rights?

According to a Chicago Tribune article on August 15, 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit against the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) for violating the Fourth Amendment’s proscription on unreasonable search and seizures.  The suit was filed on behalf of Joseph Peery, a 58-year-old resident of the Parkside of Old Town Developments.  This area used to be the Cabrini Green housing projects.  The complaint, found on the ACLU’s website, alleges the CHA’s drug policy forces residents in mixed income housing to submit to a drug test before they are approved and every year they continue to reside in the housing.  If the residents fail the drug tests or refuse to take them, they are evicted. According to the complaint Peery has never used drugs and has passed the test for the past four years.  He believes forcing residents to submit to the tests is degrading and stigmatizing.  

The residents are required to go to the business office, urinate in a cup and hand it to an officer.  Peery states the procedure is not done privately and is open for anyone to view.  After the residents give their urine samples they are required to sit out in a public hallway holding the cup until they are called.  Peery states the process makes the residents feel like criminals even though they have done nothing wrong.  There is no age restriction on the policy and Peery has witnessed older women, some who are even disabled, being forced to submit to the testing.  This drug policy is not enforced at all CHA residences and it is unclear how they decide which units will have the drug testing enforced.  Right now the policy is only being enforced in six of the mixed income housing units.  Over the years since the program started only 51 people have tested positive for drugs, which is about 4% of the CHA housing population.  

I find myself having mixed feelings over this policy.  On the one hand I feel that it is put in place for a good reason.  There has been a history of drug use and drug dealing among the residents in the Chicago housing projects.  Now that the projects are torn down and these residents are living in mixed income housing I can see why the CHA wants to keep a close watch on drug use.  In the mixed income housing units there are both low-income residents who receive vouchers and residents who pay the market rate rental prices.  Although the property managers are not supposed to inform the regular residents who is low income and who is not, many residents are at least aware if the property they are residing in welcomes low income residents.  I can see the concern some of those residents may have, especially in certain areas, about what is being done to prevent drug use and crime.  

The residents of these units argue that just because someone is using drugs does not mean they pose a threat and the CHA should be worried about the drug dealers.  While there is a point to that argument, residents could be equally concerned with drug users.  If you are living next to people who use drugs their house may become known as the “drug house” where all the other drug-using residents come to do their drugs.  This can definitely become problematic and cause the regular residents to move out. Word travels fast and eventually the unit will become known as drug infested and will no longer be mixed income housing.  It will eventually become straight low income housing due to market rate residents not wanting to live there, which will make it a housing project like Cabrini all over again.  I believe this is what the CHA had in mind when they started enforcing this policy.  The policy applies to all residents in the complex and not just the low-income residents.  

On the other hand, from the resident’s point of view, especially those who are not low income, I can see their frustration.  Having to submit to a drug test before you are qualified to live in an apartment is not a big deal if it is a one-time thing.  I think it gives the residents comfort to know that the complex they are moving into has a no tolerance policy for drugs.  However, I believe it becomes problematic when you require the residents to submit to this testing every year.  Mr. Peery, who has been living at the residence for four years drug free, should not be forced to submit to drug tests every year nor should the disabled and the elderly.  People in this age group who have passed the test several times should become exempt after a while.  

Overall, I believe the policy needs to be revised.  It should not just apply to certain complexes because that gives off the idea that these are the “problem” buildings, which may not actually be the case.  If they are going to have a no drug tolerance policy it needs to be uniform and apply to all of the CHA properties.  Testing should be done before a resident moves in and again only if the property manager receives complaints from other residents that a person may be using or dealing drugs.  This would take away the inconvenience of forcing everyone to take drug tests every year.  As someone who has never taken drugs in my life I can see how insulting it would be for my complex to all of a sudden make me submit to random yearly drug tests.  

If the CHA wants to continue the yearly testing, certain people should be able to be exempt after a while unless there is a complaint.  If you are a resident like Mr. Peery, who has been testing positive for years and is not a known drug user, then I believe the policy should be waived.  The same goes for the elderly and disabled.  I do not believe 70 and 80 year old men and women should be subjected to these tests if they have not failed in the past.  The location and setting in which the testing is done needs to be changed as well.  If it is as Mr. Peery describes it, that is not fair or adequate.  The testing should be done in private at a testing facility and not at an office open to the public where the residents being tested are put on display.  It is going to be very interesting to see how this lawsuit turns out and what changes the CHA will make in the mean time.