ACLU sues Chicago Housing Authority over drug-testing policy

August 15, 2013

(WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
Joseph Peery is the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against CHA.

Once a year Joseph Peery submits a urine sample for drug testing. He has to, to live in his apartment.

It’s a lease requirement for residency at Parkside, the former Cabrini Green public housing development on Chicago’s Near North Side.

“It’s like CSI, it’s like a crime scene or something. Makes you feel like a criminal and you haven’t done anything,” said Peery, a 58-year-old kitchen worker. He said he doesn’t do drugs and has never failed a test.

Peery is the plaintiff in an American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois lawsuit against the Chicago Housing Authority. ACLU is suing on behalf of public housing residents in mixed-income communities. The lawsuit was filed Thursday in federal court.

“There’s no question that being forced to urinate into a cup, hand over the urine and have it tested by the government is a search that can violate the Fourth Amendment. In this instance, the government would have to come up with a really good reason for why Mr. Peery’s privacy and all the other CHA tenants’ privacy would be violated. We just don’t think they have a reason that justifies it,” said Karen Sheley, an ACLU attorney.

Over the last decade, mixed-income communities have replaced the high-rise public housing buildings around the city. The new developments have public, affordable and market-rate housing renters. All of them are subject to drug testing.

“It’s clear that this is something that’s being targeted to CHA tenants,” Sheley said.

In a statement, CHA didn’t specifically address the lawsuit but repeated what it’s said in the past about drug testing: “Through the CHA's mixed-income program, public housing families reside in housing that is new, privately-owned and privately operated, alongside market-rate and affordable renters. One of the requirements of renters is that they follow property rules. And if those rules happen to include drug testing, then public housing families - like their market-rate and affordable renter neighbors - must adhere to those rules.”

Sheley said CHA is the only public housing authority in the country that conducts drug testing. But there are other ways lawmakers have tried to enforce the practice on low-income people. Several states are trying to require drug testing for welfare recipients. Michigan failed to do so more than a decade ago but is renewing its efforts.

The ACLU has been fighting CHA’s suspicionless drug policy for a decade. In 2011, the housing agency proposed drug testing for all CHA tenants. Many residents and civil liberties advocates balked at the idea. Then-CHA board chairman James Reynolds nixed the idea during a public meeting. At the time, he said drug testing “was kind of close to violating civil rights,” and that it was possible that the mixed-income drug policy may be revisited.

Sheley said the policy “makes assumptions that just aren’t true about who uses drugs and we think it should end.”

Two years ago, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act to find out the number of CHA residents who have tested positive for drugs. Attorneys learned approximately 1,600 public housing residents 18 years and older who live in mixed-income public housing; 51 tested positive over a period of several years.

“Why is the little old lady across the hall that’s 80 years old being drug tested?” Peery said. In the 1990s, he worked for a program in Cabrini Green that focused on reducing drug use among youth finding treatment for those addicted.

“You’re not going to have a drug-free environment by testing people who don’t use drugs. I don’t use drugs. There’s a history in Cabrini of people who are church goers, family people, people raising kids who go on and become very successful in life that don’t use drugs. Why are we being targeted and singled out? That’s wrong. It’s stigmatizing. It’s embarrassing and just plain unfair,” Peery said.

A common criticism is that CHA residents don’t have the right to complain about drug testing - they live in subsidized housing.

But Peery said “we’re taxpayers, too.”

Natalie Moore is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @natalieymoore.