ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Shelly Anderson has stage 5 renal failure and needs a kidney transplant. The 33-year-old recently found out that her mother is a match. There are more tests to do before the transplant, but within a year Anderson might have a new kidney, which she says would make her feel physically 100 percent better.
She could work again, stop receiving dialysis three times a week and stop taking the medications that sap her energy. At least for a while. The disease is genetic, so despite the transplant Anderson could wind up with kidney failure again.
But just as her health prospects are looking up, Anderson faces another crisis: She’s going to be evicted from her home in public housing unless a court intervenes. Even her illness has not stayed the hand of Alexandria public housing officials.
For now, Anderson lives with her three children, ages 4, 7 and 14, in a three-bedroom town house about two miles west of Old Town Alexandria. This past May, she received notice that her lease would be terminated. The city is trying to evict her for crimes that she didn’t commit — not even the city claims she did — under a 1996 drug war policy developed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to make public housing safer.
Under HUD’s one-strike policy, any drug offense may lead to eviction from public housing, even offenses of which the tenants themselves are unaware and even if the offenses were committed off-site. And that has led to cases like Anderson’s, in which a poor, single, desperately ill woman and her three kids may lose the only place they have to live over someone else’s misbehavior.
The someone elses here are her mother, Fannie Anderson, and her children’s father, Arthur Bates, whom Shelly Anderson has known since she was 15. Neither lives with Anderson and her kids, but until the fall of 2010, when they were found in possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia, they took care of the kids when Anderson was receiving dialysis.
“I have to depend on these two people in my life, my mother and my high school sweetheart,” Anderson said. “I have to depend on them. It’s not like this is some easy situation.”
In the fall of 2010, Bates pleaded guilty to cocaine possession charges. The police investigation of Bates led them to search Anderson’s home, where they found drug paraphernalia belonging to her mother. According to Anderson, the objects were in a purse that was stuffed in a big plastic bag of her mother’s belongings. She was storing this sack of her mother’s things while her mother was moving to Alexandria from nearby Prince William County. The mother later pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia.
Anderson described her mother as an addict who has been sober for “close to 12 months, almost a year,” and was sober at the time the paraphernalia was found in her home. When the drug charges came down, Anderson said, she stopped letting her mother or Bates come to the house. Now her “80-something-year-old grandmother” takes the bus there three times a week to watch the kids, she said.
Unfortunately for Anderson, her lease with the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority contains a one-strike clause that allows the public housing authority to evict her if any member of her household or any guest engages in certain kinds of criminal activity. In May 2011, she received a termination notice from the agency stating that she was being evicted because of the drug crimes of her mother and Blake. The termination notice declares that because of their drug crimes, the housing authority concluded Anderson’s house “has been used as a location for drug-related criminal activity on or near the Premises.” It says nothing about Anderson herself or her children being involved in any drug or other criminal activity.
Edward Lacy, a manager with the housing authority, said that in Alexandria, the one-strike policy is applied every time a lease could be terminated for a drug offense. In cases involving drugs, he said, the agency never exercises its discretion not to apply the policy.
Lacy noted that during the last “two, three years,” about 50 public housing residents have been evicted under the one-strike policy for drug offenses. “I know this year alone we were up to 19 in October,” he said, adding that usually most cases involve “a family member that gets them into trouble.”
Lacy said that the policy is serving its purpose in Alexandria and that public housing residents are, by and large, glad to see the agency kicking out people who are involved with drugs or whose associates are involved with drugs.
A POLICY THAT HURTS
Stories abound about the one-strike policy being wielded in seemingly egregious ways to evict “innocent tenants,” such as a disabled elderly man in California whose caretaker was caught with crack. (Although not the result of one-strike, Alexandria’s penchant for strictly applying eviction rules led in 1999 to the eviction of a kidney donor whom the city found staying in a friend’s public housing unit. Andrew Cuomo, then secretary of housing and urban development, leased the woman an affordable townhouse unit in the District of Columbia.) The Chicago Reporter wrote in September that 86 percent of Chicago’s one-strike evictions last year did not arise from criminal activity by the person named on the lease.
“These policies, the effect of them on children, families, women, families of color, were not thought through. And I think now a national conversation is beginning to rethink that,” said Ariela Migdal, a senior staff attorney with the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Migdal pointed to a June 2011 letter from HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan to public housing directors, encouraging the directors to use their “broad discretion” to create a flexible set of standards for who will be admitted to and allowed to stay in public housing.
Lacy said that his agency is not part of this national conversation. There is no one-strike reform effort under way in Alexandria. Moreover, the policy itself was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that the policy served important public purposes, such as deterring “drug-related criminal conduct of other persons in public housing, when they become aware that their conduct may have adverse impacts on their entire household,” and removing from public housing those whose guests “pose a threat to their neighbors.”
So under current law, no one argues that the Alexandria housing authority has the power in general to evict tenants whose co-tenants and guests commit crimes. Anderson’s lawyers, from Legal Services of Northern Virginia, dispute that the agency has the discretion to evict this particular tenant under the one-strike policy. They’re contesting her eviction in the Circuit Court for the City of Alexandria on a number of grounds, including that the agency is abusing its discretion in applying the one-strike policy against a person with stage 5 renal disease and that the drug crimes were committed by people who qualify as neither household members nor guests under the policy.
The lawyers might also argue that the housing agency violated Anderson’s right to due process. They said they hadn’t originally planned to make any constitutional claims, but the jury trial scheduled for Dec. 9 has been continued until spring, which gives them more time to work on their legal arguments.
The continuance also gives Anderson more time to work on her health and to plan Christmas. She put up decorations last Wednesday. The tree in her living room is covered in ornaments containing pictures of her children.
There’s more time to wait in limbo, as well. Anderson said that she wishes the city would drop its action against her, so she could stop worrying about what she is going to do if she has to leave her house, since she has nowhere else to go.
“I feel like it’s unfair,” she said. “I can’t be responsible for someone else’s actions. I’ve seen people do worse things on our property. I see it every single day. And they get away with it.”
The irony here is that Anderson doesn’t even want to stay in this house. Given her druthers, she would move to Fairfax County, Va., where one of her younger sisters lives.
“I think there’s more resources there. The school systems are better. I’d prefer to live in a quieter neighborhood,” Anderson said. “It gets kind of rowdy around here.”