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Families hope suit stops eviction

The Baltimore Sun

Samantha Johnson hasn't had an easy time of it.

A year ago today, she was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward after attempting suicide, according to court documents, and was later fired from her job at Wal-Mart for missing too much work. One of her two sons, Timothy, 11, has severe asthma.

Now Johnson and her boys face eviction from their apartment in a Cherry Hill public housing project because she's behind on the rent. Had it not been for a lawsuit filed Thursday by the Legal Aid Bureau on her behalf and that of three other families, Johnson, 31, might have been on the street as soon as next week.

"I was on pins and needles trying to find somewhere to go," she said yesterday. "My sister's house is too crowded, my mum lives with a friend, and my father is on drugs, so there's nowhere to go."

The lawsuit seeks to force the housing authority to stop what Legal Aid calls "an illegal policy and practice of authorizing mass evictions of public-housing families" through a process that denies them the right to satisfy rental debts at the last minute.

If the practice is allowed to continue, the suit says, thousands of public-housing families "face the prospect of homelessness and the loss of their irreplaceable, low-income housing on entirely unlawful grounds."

Housing authority officials say they are only evicting people who are perennially late with their rent. But Theda Saffo, a lawyer for Legal Aid, which provides free civil legal services for low-income people, said the Housing authority is using the practice as "an expeditious means of clearing out their housing stock."

In response to the lawsuit, Housing authority officials backed off yesterday from enforcing eviction orders next week against the four families named as plaintiffs, including Johnson's, until the outcome of a hearing in federal court. Four other families face eviction next month.

A spokeswoman for the Housing authority, Cheron Porter, said such "chronically late" tenants were warned as long ago as October of the stricter enforcement. At that time, however, "everyone's slate was wiped clean," she said, meaning that the housing agency decided not to count tenants' previous tardiness against them. Tenants who are facing eviction now have failed to pay or been late in paying rent for at least five months since then, she said.

"There's really not a whole element of surprise here," Porter said. "It didn't just come out of the blue."

There are about 11,000 residents in what Porter called conventional public housing in Baltimore, and an average of 1,300 fail to pay their rent on time each month.

Porter said tenants may have up to four late-payment judgments against them without imminent eviction. On the fifth instance, however, the agency reserves the right to terminate a lease without giving the tenant any more chances. Under a local law the housing authority is invoking, tenants can be evicted after the fifth missed or late payment even if they later come up with the money.

But that's illegal, said Reena Shah, a lawyer for Legal Aid.

"The local law doesn't apply to public housing tenants because they have constitutional safeguards," Shah said. "They're protected by due process clauses under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments."

Shah said tenants must be able to present extenuating circumstances - whether related to health, employment of other problems - during a properly convened hearing. Porter responded by saying that agency officials personally inform tardy tenants what they face and that the housing authority is doing nothing illegal.

In Johnson's case, her rental debt has ballooned to about $1,400. Johnson, who receives no child support and is ineligible for food stamps, has found a job at another Wal-Mart and was recently hired to help care for an 87-year-old woman, but only temporarily. A baby sitter takes care of the boys.

Yesterday, Johnson seemed fatalistic.

"I'm just taking it one day at a time," she said. "Dealing with housing, you don't know what you're going to get."

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