Apartments Use Drug Tests to Slam Door on Crime

Apartments Use Drug Tests to Slam Door on Crime
Posted by FoM on August 05, 2000 at 08:08:10 PT
By Noah Isackson, Tribune Staff Writer
Source: Chicago Tribune
On the sidewalks surrounding two Edgewater apartment buildings, the Bryn Mawr and the Belle Shore, neighbors once sipped alcohol cloaked in paper bags while prostitutes met their customers. Each night, street toughs held court as drug dealers worked the streets. Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th) used to call the two buildings a blight in her ward.But two years ago, a new building manager brought a controversial approach to the apartments—requiring that prospective tenants pass a drug test. 
Smith said the change has reduced the amount of crime and has been a factor in cleaning up the blocks."It has helped the community to understand that there is a way to make changes, a way to get it done," she said. "We are now bringing back a neighborhood."Drug testing, accepted for years in the workplace, has quietly made small inroads in the private housing industry during the past several years. Early indications suggest that most residents and landlords, along with police, believe the practice is helping curb problems in local communities.The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and other landlords across the country say they are watching Edgewater's example. The idea of testing potential tenants for drugs also has been considered in several public housing programs nationwide.In private housing, the tests are administered for adults in at least three buildings in Chicago. Nationwide data on usage is not available, although at least one landlord in Ohio and another in Florida test potential tenants.Although some civil liberties advocates question the practice, arguing it is too intrusive, they acknowledge that such drug tests probably would pass legal muster in court because they are voluntary and the apartments are privately owned."The question is not can they do it, but should they do it," said Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. "It's a really strange territory we tread when the perception is that, in order to do business with someone, we have to open up our entire lives."John Bartlett of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization also decried such testing, saying it shows the powerlessness of poor people looking for apartments in a tight market for affordable housing."Landlords are in the driver's seat; poor people don't have a choice," he said.But the management company that runs all three buildings in Chicago, along with their counterparts in Ohio and Florida, said no applicant has threatened a lawsuit or charged discrimination.Residents said they value the knowledge that neighbors are not drug users more than they mind submitting to a drug test.Cynthia Zeman, 39, a food-service manager at Evanston Hospital who has lived in a studio apartment in the Belle Shore since December, is among the tenants behind the plan."I was shocked when they told me about the drug tests," she said. "But it is very exciting to live in a place where you can see that they are turning things around.""I used to be afraid to get off [the "L" train] on Bryn Mawr; there were drug dealers and prostitutes," said Belle Shore resident Holli Hitchins, 29, a dancer who recently renewed her lease. "But I feel safe now."There has been a "noticeable" drop in crime around the two buildings, at 1062 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. and at 5550 N. Kenmore Ave., according to Chicago Police Community Policing Officer Bob Johnson of the Foster Avenue District. Although police do not attribute the drop to the drug tests alone, they said the new policy is a factor."Walk over there now, you see urban renewal going on," said police officer Victor Grimm.Community leaders agree the drop in crime has helped fuel larger efforts to attract new businesses and upscale residents to Edgewater."The problems related to drug use forced us to enter our own war against drugs," said Matthew Roddy, executive vice president of Holsten Management Corp., which owns the two buildings. "The credit checks, the employment checks, the rental history checks, weren't giving us the information we needed. We needed to specifically mount an attack against drugs on our properties."The company also uses drug tests at an apartment building in Garfield Park."Our residents are behind us," company president Peter Holsten said. "They want to live in places that are free from drugs because they see how it makes problems disappear."The only people who aren't positive about it are the ones who know they would fail the test."Since the policy began in 1998, about 600 people have taken the urine test, with about 1 percent failing, said Sherri Kranz, director of leasing and community relations for the two buildings. The cost is included in the application fee.HUD is among those watching the renaissance of the buildings."It's a process that is of interest to us," said Lee Jones, a spokesman for HUD. "Certainly we will watch what the experience of these two buildings is and see what the result is."A Columbus, Ohio, developer in 1994 may have been the first to require drug tests of renters, and a handful of landlords in other cities soon followed, neatly fitting the policy into a lease that included other typically forbidden things, such as wild animals, waterbeds or subletters.Legal experts—arguing that no law prohibits a private company from administering voluntary drug tests—said the policy would probably hold up in court."There have always been provisions in leases that prevent illegal activity," said Robert Boron, a Chicago attorney who has specialized in landlord-tenant issues for two decades. "This represents a more pre-emptive strike, and it may not be such a bad idea."Housing advocates say drug testing is a natural outgrowth of crime and politics. Laws now make property owners liable for criminal activity on their land. In the last decade, this combination has dramatically changed the way building owners view tenants, said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington, D.C. "There is a considerable political element here that has trickled down," Crowley said. "The nature of politics today is that it's a huge faux pas to be soft on drugs and crime."For Holsten, the threat of prosecution factored heavily into his company's decision to require drug testing of tenants. Several years ago, Holsten said he received "nasty letters" from the Cook County state's attorney's office about problems at several of his properties. "We were on the verge of being declared a public nuisance," Holsten said. "Here we are, a developer of low-income housing, trying to do good things for the community, and we are being taken to task for our tenants' criminal activity."Contact: ctc-TribLetter Forum: August 05, 2000Copyright: 2000 Chicago Tribune CompanyRelated Articles:Apartments Require Drug Test Drug-Screening an Option Drug Testing Archives:
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Comment #1 posted by Dan B on August 05, 2000 at 21:07:33 PT:
Shame on the Owners.
Let me get this straight: They have now tested 600 people and less than 1 percent have tested positive? Quite remarkable, consider the prevalence of drug use in this country. Let's examine, though, what "crimes" they sought to eradicate by testing for drugs:"neighbors once sipped alcohol cloaked in paper bags while prostitutes met their customers. Each night, street toughs held court as drug dealers worked the streets. Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th) used to call the two buildings a blight in her ward."First of all, alcohol is not only legal but is not reported in a test designed to look for illegal drugs. Are they now planning to conduct weekend breathalyzer tests to insure that their tenants aren't drinking alcohol? Certainly such action would be legal. Maybe they can also set up mandatory 12-step programs and have monthly weigh-ins to keep obese people from obtaining housing. Second, prostitution is not a violent crime. And one would be hard pressed to convincingly argue that prostitutes are likely to commit violent crimes or property crimes. Being a prostitute means that they make money the old fashioned way--they earn it. Keeping prostitution illegal does nothing to protect victims and everything to protect violent criminals. When was the last time you heard about a prostitute raping someone? Now, go out and try to find a prostitute working the sreets who has not been physically or sexually assaulted, or raped. If you ask me, they should legalize prostitution in order to protect the prostitutes. That would provide real protection against violent crime. Third, selling drugs is not a violent crime. Interesting that they label all drug dealers as "street toughs," painting a negative picture in people's minds fron the get go. I don't buy this mentality that seems to think drug dealers are out on the streets forcing cocaine up people's noses or jamming hypodermic needles into the veins of passersby. For the most part, drug dealers try to keep a low profile and are not foolish enough to attract attention by trying to force a sale. The violence associated with drug dealing is a direct result of its necessarily clandestine nature.It seems that the only crimes the owners sought to eradicate by testing for drugs were prostitution and drug dealing, both consensual activities.It does seem to make sense that if drug dealers have no customers in a particular area, they will go to an area that does have customers. But that doesn't mean that the drug dealers cease to exist. They have simply moved down the street to another set of apartment complexes.  These apartment complex owners didn't want to erase crime in their neighborhoods. They wanted to erase the embarassment they had because people were doing things people do in their apartments. How many of these people have slept with someone on a first date? The only difference I can see between that and prostitution is that the prostitute has the good sense to get a little help with the rent thrown into the deal. How many of these people have bought alcohol from the local liqour store? The only difference I see between the sale made in the liquor store and the drug deal on the street is that the police protect the person selling alcohol and arrest the drug dealer.The only truly shameful act I see in this story is perpetrated by the owners of these apartment complexes, who turn people in need of housing away simply because they engage in a lifestyle different from their own. It's repulsive, it's uncivilized, and it's wrong.
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