Lawyers continue fight against CHA drug testing
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois is targeting the drug testing of renters who live in Chicago Housing Authority mixed-income apartments. The approach — a challenge to the practice’s constitutionality — is meant to end a practice that’s been justified as reasonable, given that many of CHA’s mixed-income developments are on the footprint of notorious, crime-ridden public housing known for open-air drug markets.
“Drug testing without suspicion is an invasion of personal privacy. The government is taking a part of our body and they are examining it and trying to find evidence to use against us,” said ACLU attorney Adam Schwartz. “We think the government should not force people to take drug tests unless there’s some kind of individualized suspicion that they’re creating a drug crime.”
A couple of years ago the ACLU asked how many CHA residents had tested positive for drugs. Attorneys found that out of 1,500 public housing residents who live in mixed-income public housing, 51 tested positive over a period of several years.
Two years ago then-CHA board chair James Reynolds quashed a drug-testing plan for all public housing residents. At mixed-income properties affordable and market-rate renters are subject to drug testing, along with their public housing neighbors. People who buy CHA homes are not covered.
To the ACLU’s detractors, Schwartz offers a parallel about privilege, housing and policy.
“Middle-class Americans across the country get a benefit from the U.S. government worth thousands of dollars in the form of their mortgage deduction and they don’t have to take a drug test,” Schwartz said.
Earlier this year, a Cook County Circuit Court judge ruled that CHA could not evict a woman whose daughter didn’t take a drug test. But the issue was a lease dispute. ACLU filed a brief in the case in which lawyers broached the subject of the constitutionality of suspicion-less drug screening.
Without giving a timetable, Schwartz said “we are working against this policy in every way we can. Litigation is always a possibility.”
Some CHA tenants themselves have balked at drug testing and have taken on the policy.
“Everybody knows the only reason at least in my opinion that you have drug testing in mixed finance is because of public housing residents. The only reason. They say it applies to everybody and that’s in question after some of the testimony at Oakwood Shores. So we shall see,” said Bob Whitfield, attorney for the CHA tenants group.
Whitfield represented Mortisha Bloodsaw, whose four-bedroom apartment near 39th Street is part of the Oakwood Shores development. A Cook County judge wouldn’t let CHA evict the public housing resident. Bloodsaw had wanted her daughter off of her lease but CHA insisted that the daughter still had to take a drug test.
“We should be able to live comfortably. And we not. We not. We not,” Bloodshaw said. “I do my drug test every time they ask me. They get the results, you’re fine. But I just feel they violating your personal and private rights.”
Bloodsaw said even though she’s always passed the drug tests herself, she wants the policy gone.
CHA officials acknowledge the ACLU’s attempts to strike down the constitutionality of drug testing. As far as Bloodsaw’s case goes, because of the judge’s ruling, CHA says there’s no need to intervene.
In the past, CHA has said all families must abide by the rules of mixed income. Including drug testing.