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Housing advocate again fights eviction

After a failed attack on the "one-strike law,'' Connie Burton is before a civil jury in Tampa battling the housing authority.

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 24, 2002

TAMPA -- For more than three years, the Tampa Housing Authority has been trying to oust Connie Burton from her four-bedroom apartment at the Robles Park public housing complex.

The authority began eviction proceedings against her in May 1999 after her son Narada was arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession. The "one-strike" statute allows the authority to evict tenants if someone listed on their lease runs afoul of the law.

Burton, 46, is president of the Robles Park tenants' association and hosts a radio call-in show on WMNF-FM 88.5 in which she has been a persistent critic of the authority.

After failing in federal court, Burton's lawyers are arguing her case this week before a civil jury at the Hillsborough County Courthouse. In his opening statement, attorney Guy Burns said the authority is retaliating against Burton because she advocates tenants' rights.

Burns said Narada, now 23, had not lived with his mother for more than two years when he was arrested. His name was on her lease because his participation in a job program for troubled youths required him to list public housing residency.

In an interview, Burns said about a half-dozen other tenants whose children were arrested in a drug sting have been allowed to stay in public housing. Burns said housing authority president Jerome Ryans wants to evict Burton because "she is creating a political problem for him."

"It's not a case of retaliation," Ryans said. "We don't operate like that at the Tampa Housing Authority."

On the stand Monday, Ryans testified that the one-strike policy, which went into effect nationwide in 1996, stemmed from a scourge of drug-related crime in public housing.

"They were being terrorized," Ryans said, adding that Robles Park had the worst drug problem of any Tampa housing development.

Under cross-examination, Ryans conceded that if Burton's son were not living with her at the time of his arrest, she would "probably not" be a nuisance if she were allowed to stay.

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