Sisters sue Chicago Housing Authority over drug testing

January 6, 2014

WBEZ/Natalie Moore
DeAnn and Jessica Stubenfield are suing the Chicago Housing Authority in federal court.

Two sisters who live in a Chicago Housing Authority mixed-income development are suing the agency over its practice of suspicionless drug testing.

DeAnn and Jessica Stubenfield live with their mother in a townhouse in Oakwood Shores off Pershing Road, surrounded by black-and-white photography and their school awards. DeAnn attends Harold Washington College and Jessica is a recent Columbia College graduate.

Each year, during lease renewal, they are required under CHA rules to take a drug test. Jessica has taken it once, but now refuses.

“I shouldn’t have to be violated and have my rights be violated to try to prove to people that I’m this clean person,” said Jessica Stubenfield, who is 23 years old. Her sister DeAnn is 19.

The Stubenfields filed a lawsuit in federal court last fall to stop the CHA from testing residents in mixed-income housing projects for drugs. They are also seeking unspecified damages for residents who have been subjected to drug testing.

“I almost backed out [of the lawsuit], but I said, ‘Let me go through with it,” DeAnn Stubenfield said. “It’ll be worth it in the end. It will be better for everybody else, not just for me, not just for my family. I was thinking about the future.”

Over the past decade, mixed-income communities have replaced high-rise public housing buildings around the city. Oakwood Shores is where the Ida B. Wells and Darrow Homes once stood.

The new developments have public-, affordable-, and market-rate housing renters. All of them are subject to drug testing.

And that is a concern to advocates. Last August, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed its own lawsuit against CHA on behalf of public housing residents in mixed-income communities who are drug-tested. These cases will have a joint hearing in May.

CHA is the only public housing agency in the country that tests for drugs, lawyers say. In 2011, ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out the number of CHA residents who have tested positive for drugs. Attorneys learned that of approximately 1,600 residents 18 years and older who lived in mixed-income public housing, 51 tested positive over a period of several years.

But CHA stands by the policy.

"Through the CHA's mixed-income program, public housing families reside in new, privately owned and privately operated alongside market-rate and affordable renters. One of the requirements of all the 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,” CHA said in a statement.

A common criticism is that CHA residents do not have the right to complain about drug testing because they live in subsidized housing. The Stubenfields’ attorney chafes at that logic.

“If people are in favor of this drug testing because the CHA residents receive government funds, you have to look at all the people who receive government funds,” said Samantha Liskow, referring to varied groups of people such as college students.

On Dec. 31 a federal judge struck down a law that required drug testing of all welfare recipients. Liskow said that has an enormous impact on the federal CHA case.

“We believe that will apply in full force here,” Liskow said.

is a WBEZ reporter. nmoore@wbez.org

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