Take Steps to Halt Drug-Related Activity at Your Site
Drug-related and criminal activity has long been associated with low-income housing in the public mind. While drug dealing also takes place in conventional housing sites, most drug dealers and gangs target low-income developments to push their drugs to an already fragile population, say crime prevention specialists Chuck Desrosiers and Moses Saygbe. They point out that there are several factors that make certain housing sites more attractive to criminals:
- Households consisting of single parents who are working multiple jobs with kids being raised by themselves.
- Lack of programs. Teens and young adults will find their own source of entertainment when none is available.
- Lack of jobs. Residents who have too much time on their hands may turn to drugs and criminal activity to survive.
- Lack of residents' involvement in the housing community. Residents do not feel they have a voice in policy making.
- Frequent negative confrontation between residents and law enforcement.
- Constant turnover of residents, or a history of having been evicted for nonpayment of rent.
Typically, the more that a community tolerates crime, the more it increases. It then begins to spiral—as crime increases, good residents move out and problem households with a higher tolerance for crime take their place, and the crime continues to increase.
How can you break the cycle? The following are insights and recommendations from leading crime prevention experts.
Follow HUD's 'One Strike' Policy
HUD's “one strike and you're out” rules for screening and eviction for drug-related and other criminal activity were adopted in 2001. The policy requires managers of public housing and federally funded sites to establish certain screening criteria to prohibit drug-related activity, such as denying admission to applicants if:
- Any household member has been evicted from a federally assisted site for drug-related criminal activity within the past three years;
- Any household member is currently engaging in illegal drug use;
- The manager determines that there is reasonable cause to believe that a household member's illegal use or a pattern of illegal use of a drug may interfere with the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other residents; or
- The manager determines that there is reasonable cause to believe that a household member's abuse or pattern of abuse of alcohol interferes with the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other residents.
Site managers may also adopt optional additional drug-related screening criteria to reject a household if a household member “is currently engaging in, or has engaged in” drug-related criminal activity within a reasonable time before the date of the admission decision.
Conduct Criminal Background Checks
HUD says that site owners and managers may use their local public housing authority (PHA) to conduct criminal background checks. If you do, you must get the applicant's consent, provide the PHA with your screening criteria, and pay any fees the PHA requires (which are site expenses and can't be charged to the applicant). The PHA will tell you whether the applicant meets your site's screening criteria, but won't tell you what the applicant's background contains.
You can also use other sources to conduct criminal background checks, such as screening firms, private investigators, state and local law enforcement agency records, and references from the applicant's previous landlords. According to the IRS, tax credit sites can charge applicants' administrative fees to cover the actual cost of running a background check; however, be sure to check with your state housing agency first—some agencies may have additional restrictions on fees.
PRACTICAL POINTER: You can get criminal background information on an applicant in just a few short seconds on your computer, says Timothy Zehring, executive director of the International Crime Free Association. Managers can conduct a quick, free background check by visiting www.iinvestigate.net. Click on “Public Records by State” in the left-hand menu, then click on the state that you want to search in, and look for the link to the state inmate database. That will bring up details about an individual's recent offenses, probation status, dates, and case numbers.
Evict Households Involved in Drug Activity
“Much of the crime that takes place at low-income housing sites is not caused by the residents,” Zehring points out. “It's usually their guests and unauthorized occupants who cause the problems.”
Serious problems need serious consequences, Desrosiers and Saygbe stress. “Have it spelled out in your leases that drug use and any activity related to it will not be tolerated,” they advise. “Then evict the individual(s) as soon as possible, and publicize the eviction through your site newsletter. A better informed public will see that the issue was dealt with quickly and know that it won't be tolerated.”
Is it legal to evict a resident whose guest or family member is using or dealing drugs? Absolutely, Zehring says. He cites a landmark decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in which four Oakland Housing Authority residents were evicted for drug activity engaged in by family members or guests outside their units [Rucker v. Davis, January 2001]. The court determined that the lease terms vested local PHAs with the discretion to evict tenants for the drug-related activity of household members and guests whether or not the tenant knew, or should have known, about the activity.
To enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward drug-related activity at your site, you will need to include a lease addendum that clearly states to residents that they will be held responsible for the actions of their family members, guests, and friends, says Zehring. He wrote the Crime-Free Lease Addendum in 1992, which was adopted by the state of Arizona in 1994, as well as by cities across the United States. (You can find the addendum on the International Crime Free Association's Web site, www.crime-free-association.org.)
HUD's model lease also includes language supporting its zero-tolerance policy toward drug-related activity (see HUD's Model Lease Includes Drug-Free Language).
PRACTICAL POINTER: If you discover that a resident is keeping drugs in his or her unit, don't continue to accept rent payments from the household. By doing so, you could lose your right to enforce HUD's “One Strike” lease clause. A court could rule that you have waived your right to evict the resident [Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority v. Hairston, April 2003].
Strategies for Ongoing Drug Prevention
“Everyone must remember that the problems and issues didn't occur overnight, and it will take time to fix them,” say Desrosiers and Saygbe. “If everyone gets involved and works on the solutions, it can get done.”
In addition to screening policies and lease provisions, low-income housing sites can put in place long-term strategies that will help to deter drug-related activity. Desrosiers and Saygbe recommend the following actions:
- Educate your residents. Let them assist in creating rules that deter gangs, drugs, and crime. Most, if not all, will support the reduction of crime within their neighborhood/complex.
- Provide recreation facilities and programs for the residents.
- Keep the complex in good repair, and shrubs and grass trimmed.
- Install surveillance cameras in trouble areas.
- Limit traffic flow in and out of the site; install key card entry pads and use speed bumps or other traffic calming features.
- Have a security company on the premises to patrol every day or during certain days of the month to give residents a feeling of security. You can also try to establish a sense of security within the residents themselves by way of training and partnership with the local law enforcement and PHA.
Also, see the sidebars below, Resources for Long-Term Drug Prevention, below, and Signs of Drug-Related Activity.
Get Your Residents Involved
A critical success factor in halting drug-related activity is to get the residents to stop tolerating crime in their community. How? By getting them involved in prevention initiatives. Zehring suggests hosting “safety social” events at your site.
“The safety social event is a police-sponsored meeting with the residents,” he says. “We go out to the property a minimum of one time per year to educate residents how to be the eyes and ears of the property, observing and reporting. And we start to build partnerships with those residents.”
Other ways to get residents involved, say Desrosiers and Saygbe, include:
- Start a resident newsletter.
- Start a Neighborhood Crime Watch—crime prevention starts with everyone; all can be a part of the solution, but it takes a few to create the problem.
- Have a block party during National Crime Prevention Month in October (or during the summer months) to celebrate successes in the reduction of crime and for improving the quality of life. You can invite everyone involved—make it a place residents want to be in, and establish ownership and a sense of family.
- Handle complaints quickly and efficiently. Show people that site management cares about their quality of life. Create a database to document all complaints and to determine successes within a period of time.
Partner with Local Authorities
It's important to meet regularly with local officials. Invite them to tour the site and offer suggestions for improving the safety and security of the residents, suggest Desrosiers and Saygbe. “Collaborate with local police to recruit and train residents by way of the Citizen Police Academy. Residents learn things like preserving the crime scene, how to report crime immediately and anonymously, and how to incorporate natural surveillance (look for suspicious activity and when you see it, say it).”
Also, be sure to invite local police and officials to your resident meetings and block parties, and keep them apprised of problems and issues.
If the drug activity persists, “request increased patrols and keep a fresh pot of coffee in the office so that when police stop in they'll want to stay a while,” Desrosiers and Saygbe add. It works. They point to a coffee shop owner who was having problems with a gang that was tagging his building every week. The owner put a pot of coffee on and invited local police and firefighters to stop in. They did, and the tagging stopped.
As local police get more involved with your site through safety social events and resident meetings, hopefully, it will encourage residents to report any criminal activity that they see, says Zehring. However, if they don't want to go to the police directly, make sure that they have someone—a manager or site staff—they can bring the information to who can relay it to the police.
PRACTICAL POINTER: You can help the police to make a thorough investigation of drug-related activity at your site by providing a single, comprehensive, written report on the who, what, when, and how of each drug-dealing location. For a Model Drug Complaint Form, see “Get Police Response by Using Drug Complaint Form,” in the June 2008 issue of our sister newsletter, Assisted Housing Management Insider, p. 4.
Chuck Desrosiers: Director of Constituency Services, National Crime Prevention Council; (202) 261-4184; www.ncpc.org.
Moses Saygbe: Crime Prevention Specialist, Office of the Rhode Island Attorney General; www.riag.ri.gov.
Resources for Long-Term Drug Prevention
There's no quick fix for deep-seated, long-term problems with drug-related or criminal activity in a low-income site, say crime prevention specialists Chuck Desrosiers and Moses Saygbe. “One of the best ways to address them is through a complete assessment of the site.”
Both the National Crime Prevention Council and International Crime Free Association offer programs that involve Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) models, site management training, and ongoing community (management and residents) awareness and participation. For more information and resources, visit their Web sites: National Crime Prevention Council (www.ncpc.org) and International Crime Free Association (www.crime-free-association.org).
Signs of Drug-Related Activity
- High level of vehicular traffic; people coming and going at all hours of the day and night.
- Tagging and graffiti; gang members marking their area to show others that the area is taken and warning other groups to stay out.
- Needles and syringes discarded about the property.
- Individuals hanging around a particular unit.
- Disturbances at a particular unit.
- Adult children living at home with the parents. In most states, anyone over 18 can be subject to a criminal background check. Managers who do a background check should look for a criminal record of imprisonment, parole, or probation.
- Having more residents than mandated by the housing authority.
- High level of alcohol and drug use in the home.
Source:National Crime Prevention Council, www.ncpc.org
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