The Cranky Taxpayer

The Cranky Taxpayer

Harboring Crime II

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An FOIA request discloses that RRHA continues to harbor disorder on its property.

Background: RRHA Leases Must Contain the "One Strike" Provision

Fed up with the drug dealing and other criminal activity at public housing, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.  That law, as later amended, requires that each

public housing agency shall utilize leases which … provide that any criminal activity that threatens the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other tenants or any drug-related criminal activity on or off such premises, engaged in by a public housing tenant, any member of the tenant’s household, or any guest or other person under the tenant’s control, shall be cause for termination of tenancy.

42 U.S.C. § 1437d.  This became known as the "One Strike" policy: One strike and you're out.

In 2002, the Supreme Court held that, as to drugs, the statute means exactly what it says: The lease must allow a local public housing authority to evict a tenant when a member of the tenant’s household or a guest engages in drug-related criminal activity, regardless of whether the tenant knew, or had reason to know, of that activity.

Testing RRHA's One Strike Enforcement

In early 2008, a year and a half after Sheila Hill-Christian had moved on, I decided to see how RRHA was using the One Strike clause in its lease.  The results on 2007 data were consistent with RRHA's abject failure to control the nuisance it maintains in our city.

In May of 2008 I repeated the exercise.  As of May 21, the Police Department database reported eight drug/narcotic violations on or adjacent to RRHA property.  In four of those the person arrested gave an RRHA address; in three of the four the arrestee's address was the same as the address of the offense:

Incident No. No. Street RRHA Location Activity Arrestee No. Home Street
20080115-0706 1508 COALTER              8274 RESIDENCE (MULTIPLE UNITS) DISTRIBUTING / SELLING   1508 COALTER             
20080221-0456 102 FEDERAL              2565 HIGHWAY / ROAD / ALLEY  DISTRIBUTING / SELLING   1030 ST PAUL             
20080318-0654 1308 ST PETER             1150 RESIDENCE (MULTIPLE UNITS) DISTRIBUTING / SELLING PATILLO 1308 ST PETER ST         
20080321-0606 1634 GLENFIELD            4299 RESIDENCE (MULTIPLE UNITS) POSSESSING / CONCEALING    1624 GLENFIELD           

So I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with RRHA for its records in connection with the four incidents.

On June 5, Ms. Deborah Hamlin, who handles FOIA requests for RRHA, and Ms. April King, the administrative assistant to Chief Hazelton of RRHA's Public Safety Division, chatted with me and provided the responsive records.  In short, the records suggest that RRHA may have made some progress, but still is afflicted by its traditional posture: Hear No Evil; See No Evil; Harbor Evil.

Score One for RPD

The RRHA file discloses that the arrest on January 15 produced a "258 letter," which the RPD uses to notify a landowner (RRHA in this case) of drug activity on its property.  RPD sends these letters to establish knowledge of the activity, so that further drug activity on the landowner's property can be prosecuted under Va. Code § 18.2-258.  The police report that is with the letter indicates that Ms. Griffin of 1508 Coalter was arrested there for distributing/selling crack cocaine, marijuana, and prescription drugs.

The file also contains a notice from Ms. Griffin returning possession of her apartment to RRHA.  Ms. King tells me that Ms. Griffin was being housed and fed by the taxpayers in a less comfortable place (the slammer) and she relinquished the RRHA apartment.  There is no indication that RRHA recorded this incident in the First Advantage or any other database, so Ms. Griffin presumably remains eligible for subsidized housing upon release.

Score One for RRHA?

The file on Ms. Patillo, the resident at 1308 St. Peter St., is silent as to the incident reported on March 18.  There is a 258 letter, dated February 28, growing out of an arrest on February 22.   I expect the date in the database is incorrect.

In any case, on March 14, RRHA sent Ms. Patillo a notice of lease violation.  The notice scheduled a meeting and provided that "another violation may result in the termination of your lease."  If the drug incident was the basis of this notice, we have to wonder why RRHA was offering the tenant two strikes, when one is quite enough under the lease.  If the drug incident was not the basis of the notice, we have to wonder why RRHA was overlooking a drug case.  The file does not answer these questions.

On April 9, RRHA sent Ms. Patillo a notice to pay or quit and a notice of termination for non-payment of $57.00 in rent. 

On May 5 RRHA obtained a Summons for Unlawful Detainer (eviction) from the Richmond General District Court, alleging $121 in unpaid rent and an unspecified lease violation.  An undated notice to Ms. Patillo advises her of the pending suit and of an additional $42 charge.  Curiously the notice advises Ms. Patillo how to pay the amount due.  Then on May 9 RRHA sent a pay or quit notice and a notice of termination for failure to pay $121.

We might wonder whether Ms. Patillo would have been evicted if she had paid the amount due.  We'll never know; RRHA obtained judgment on May 27.

On this record it's impossible to be sure whether RRHA evicted Ms. Patillo because of the 258 letter, whether they evicted her because of the past-due rent, or whether they used the past-due rent to evict her for the drug problem.   In light of the notice warning Ms. Patillo that a second lease violation might lead to eviction and the notice of the summons telling Ms. Patillo where to pay the new amount due, I would have to conclude that the only problem in RRHA's view was the rent.

Hear No Drugs; See No Drugs

The February 21 incident was outside at 102 E Federal St., an RRHA property.  The person arrested for distributing gave his home address as 1030 St. Paul St., another RRHA address.

The person arrested on March 21 for possession at 1634 Glenfield Av. gave that address to RPD as his home address.

In both cases, Ms. King tells me the persons arrested were not, in fact, on the lease at the address they gave to RPD. 

Even so, by giving the police a home address at RRHA, these people implied they had connections to RRHA.  The obvious conclusion is that they probably had girlfriends at the RRHA addresses (helping out by holding the stash, perhaps) and might well have been living there off-lease.  Either of those conditions would be abundant ground to evict the girlfriend.  Yet there is no record to indicate that RRHA investigated whether there was a girlfriend at any of these addresses.  Neither is there any record to indicate that RRHA inquired whether the persons arrested were living off-lease at the RRHA addresses they gave to RPD.  More importantly, it appears that RRHA did not even ask whether these people were on the leases until after I filed the FOIA request.

We know that most of our concentrated drug crime is associated with rental property and, more specifically, that most of the drug crime at RRHA is boyfriend related (the tenants mostly are females with children).  In the context of the One Strike regulation, RRHA's failure to make these obvious checks amounts to deliberate harboring of the people who may well be harboring drug activity.

Your Tax Money at Work:
Hear No Evil; See No Evil; Harbor Evil

The Justice Department monograph, Keeping Illegal Activity Out of Rental Property: A Police Guide for Establishing Landlord Training Programs, tells us:

Effective property management can significantly benefit the health of a community and that accessible, legitimate techniques can stop the spread of drug activity on rental property. . . .

Landlords are the first line of defense when a tenant's lease-violating behavior threatens neighborhood livability

RRHA, the largest landlord in the City, talks a good game about public safety.  For example, their web site says they are “dedicated” to “promoting safety in public housing communities and working closely with residents and city police in preventing crime.”  As we have seen, RRHA's performance contradicts that whopper. 

Their rationale is even more disturbing than their dismal performance.  When I have pressed RRHA about evicting the tenants who invite or harbor the disorder on their property, they have said to me:

·       Legal Aid makes it difficult to do anything;

·       The judges are reluctant to enforce the lease;

·        It would be “onerous” to ask RRHA staff to follow up on all offense reports and calls for service; and

·        Given the quality of the people who live in subsidized housing, RRHA can’t be expected to do much better.

These self-serving excuses (including that offensive falsehood at the end of the list) cannot justify RRHA’s ongoing maintenance of a public nuisance here in our city.

More recently, they have told me that about 80% of their tenants are women (most with children) and that evicting these tenants would leave the children homeless.  Both of those statements are true but beside the point: RRHA has a large waiting list.  Doubtless there are decent, honest people on that list who do not enjoy housing subsidies from RRHA.  Yet RRHA too often refuses to evict tenants who commit or harbor or import crime on RRHA property.  In this respect, RRHA states its preference to subsidize people who are fostering crime in preference to the honest people on their waiting list.

And we pay for this outrage with our tax money. 

I think it's past time for the Commonwealth's Attorney to sue RRHA under Va. Code § 18.2-258.01 for an injunction to require RRHA to maintain clear records of its One Strike decisions and to vigorously use the One Strike clauses in its leases to abate the nuisance RRHA is maintaining in our city.

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Last updated 04/01/12
Please send questions or comments to John Butcher