A Chicago man who objects to having to submit to drug testing as a condition of living in an apartment that he rents from the Chicago Housing Authority filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging the policy in federal court.
Joseph Peery, 58, has lived in the Parkside of Old Town mixed-income housing development on the Near North Side since 2010. Drug tests are required of all renters before they move into the complex and every year on renewal of a rental agreement, Peery said.
“It’s humiliating, embarrassing, stigmatizing, and it’s unfair,” Peery said in an interview. “I think it needs to end.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois took up Peery’s case and filed a class action lawsuit against the CHA.
The suit alleges that the drug testing, which is required at a number of the CHA’s mixed-income developments, violates tenants’ protections from unreasonable searches, seizures and invasions of privacy under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and under the Illinois Constitution.
Mixed-income developments are privately owned and operated housing complexes in which public housing tenants live alongside tenants who pay affordable rates and those who pay market rates. The CHA owns the land and provides subsidies to the developments’ public housing units, CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar said in a statement.
The agency also reviews the management company’s tenant selection criteria “and ensures that all rules for CHA residents are the same as those for market rate renters,” he said.
The CHA defends the Parkside policy, saying that it is applied equally to all renters at the complex, including those whose rent is not subsidized.
“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,” Aguilar said.
The CHA in 2011 considered requiring drug tests of all CHA tenants, but the board of directors killed the proposal. Then-board chairman James Reynolds said at the time that the board thought the proposal was “kind of close to violating on civil rights.”
Adam Schwartz, a senior lawyer at the ACLU of Illinois, said the Parkside policy and those at other mixed-income developments are clearly aimed at CHA renters.
“The reason they’re doing this is because of the stigma of the CHA renters,” he said. “If they weren’t trying to get the CHA renters, they wouldn’t be doing it to any renters.”
Schwartz said that CHA acts as the “ultimate decider” on policies imposed by the housing manager.
“If the CHA does not want a criteria, the criteria doesn’t go in,” he said. “It takes CHA action to impose this policy.”
Peery’s rental agreement is with the CHA, not the private management company, according to Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois.
Brian Gilmore, a clinical associate professor and director of the housing clinic at Michigan State University College of Law, said he researched drug testing policies throughout the country in 2011 and was unable to find any other housing authority in the U.S. that allows the drug testing requirement.
“It looks like Chicago has probably gone the furthest of anyone,” Gilmore said.
Peery said he does not do drugs. He spent more than a decade working on projects aimed at helping people stay away from drugs, he said. He now works in the kitchen at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Peery described feeling humiliated by the testing process, which takes place at the office of the management company that oversees his apartment building.
“There’s secretaries there and people walking in and paying rent, and I’m handed a cup,” Peery said.
After producing the urine sample, “you’re literally sitting there with this cup on your lap with people walking in like why is this guy sitting there with a cup of urine on his lap?” Peery said. “I haven’t done a crime. Why am I made to feel like this?”
About a year after Peery moved into his one-bedroom apartment at Parkside, he heard that the CHA was considering appliying the drug test policy to all CHA tenants. He attended a town hall meeting where he said hundreds of people turned out to object to the idea.
“What really touched me was to watch a little old lady get up out of a wheelchair, right, to come to the mic to be able to speak, right, and shaking with — I mean, very vehement — ‘Why am I being forced to drug test and urinate into a cup?’” Peery recalled. “Why would you do that to a grandma?”