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Woman fights one-strike eviction policy

Her appeals lead the Tampa Housing Authority to re-examine the role of police in evictions.

By KATHRYN WEXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


TAMPA -- Arlene Burke was pushing a baby carriage through her public housing complex one hot August afternoon last year when police officers started rounding up suspected drug dealers. Thrusting her baby at a neighbor, Burke ran home and grabbed her camera.

She had complained over the years about police getting rough at the Robles Park complex, said Burke, 31. Take photos, she said she was told by police internal affairs investigators.

As she snapped away, a crowd gathered. What happened next is in dispute.

Police say Burke refused to step back. A corporal pushed her out of the way, and Burke hit him on the arm. She was arrested on a charge of battery on a law enforcement officer.

Burke says things got tense between her and Cpl. Salvator Ruggiero. She grabbed Ruggiero's arm, she said, to keep from falling. Her arrest was retaliation, she asserts, for ignoring officers' orders to stop taking photos.

She has pleaded not guilty and her case is set for trial in September. Regardless of whether she is guilty or innocent, Burke and her six children could be evicted from her three-bedroom apartment because she was arrested.

The eviction is encouraged under a controversial one-strike policy that applies to 4-million families in public housing across the country.

But the Tampa Housing Authority has taken the unusual step of putting Burke's eviction on hold and is re-examining its procedures.

Her case underscores the power police wield in public housing. The Housing Authority relies on police at every stage of the eviction process. The nature of Burke's complaint -- that police targeted her for retaliation -- underscores the potential pitfalls of the policy.

"This is a peculiar situation," said THA Executive Director Jerome Ryans. "We've talked to some people who have said she did not hit the officer."

Burke never got to plead her case to the Housing Authority's evictions committee, consisting of THA staff and an attorney. Residents are cut out of the deliberations. Officials rely on reports and subsequent discussions with officers involved in the case.

Ryans said that may soon change.

"What we're looking at doing is adding language to the seven-day (eviction) notice that says if you've got any issues or information you want to share with us before the final decision is made, we'll hear that informally," he said.

It is up to police to notify the housing authority when one of its residents has been arrested. The Housing Authority then informs the tenant of its intent to evict and files the case in civil court. It is there that the resident can fight the eviction.

But mounting an effective defense is difficult for poor tenants such as Burke.

She caught a bus downtown for the March 13 eviction hearing. Police testified against her, and the Housing Authority was represented by an attorney from the firm of Salem, Saxon & Nielsen.

Burke didn't have money for a lawyer. Because this was a civil case, she couldn't get a public defender. Burke arrived late and didn't bring her photos.

She lost, which gave officials the authority to evict her. But Burke went to the public law library and filed motions with Hillsborough County Judge Charlotte Anderson, one asking for a rehearing.

Burke attached a note: "Please get back with me ASAP." The motion was denied as untimely and lacking a legal basis.

So in a last-ditch effort, Burke showed up at the Housing Authority board meeting a few weeks ago, this time with her photos. The members delayed the eviction until the committee explores her arrest.

The change Ryans is proposing could be the saving grace for residents like Burke who want to present mitigating evidence.

"That's great," said Martin Lawyer, attorney for Tampa Bay Legal Services, which represents indigent clients. "We could help the tenant in marshaling any information that would help."

"I think it'll be a huge step in the right direction," said Connie Burton, an activist and Robles Park resident who helped Burke fight her eviction. Burton was fired from the housing authority in 1997 and has sued over her own pending eviction, sparked by the arrest of her son.

The Housing Authority has little incentive to give residents tools to contest evictions. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides 80 percent of THA's funding, ties the money to enforcement of the one-strike policy.

Strengthened by Congress five years ago, the policy has been crucial in weeding out criminals who pollute the projects, officials argue.

It isn't without challenges. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California this year upheld the one-strike policy even while calling it "absurd." In response, HUD ordered nine states to stop wholesale evictions, though Florida was not one of them.

In Tampa, 24 households were evicted under the policy, and another 10 left voluntarily between April 1, 2000, and March 31 this year.

But the Housing Authority does exercise some discretion. Another 128 cases technically qualified for evictions during the same period because guests of tenants were arrested on the premises. All those were thrown out, said Wence Cunningham, THA's operations director, because the Housing Authority couldn't ascertain that they were bona fide guests.

Ryans, executive director since 1998, said he has made evictions more consistent. The agency came under fire from police and Mayor Dick Greco in 1996 when violence broke out in Robles Park involving people with criminal backgrounds.

Burke's own history highlights the Housing Authority's uneven record regarding the one-strike policy. Burke also goes by her mother's maiden name, Hardrick, which appeared on her battery arrest report. Under that name, she was arrested seven times since moving into Robles Park in 1994. Though only three charges resulted in convictions, Burke could have been evicted five years ago.

THA officials said they were unaware of her previous charges, which include petty theft and resisting arrest without violence.

But for the battery charge in August, there was no confusion.

Ryans said he is sensitive to Burke's predicament. He wants to consult police about her case. "It's important we maintain a good police relationship."

Maj. K.C. Newcomb, who supervises the area of Tampa that includes Robles Park, said police work hand-in-hand with the Housing Authority, which benefits the majority of law-abiding residents.

"We've got a partnership with them. They want to clean their own house and. . .(one-strike) is a very effective tool," Newcomb said.

"We're not the bad guys here. We do our job. If they can't conform to the conditions of their lease, that's their problem."

Newcomb said police don't level charges they can't defend in court, and though he was unfamiliar with Burke's case, he doubted her version.

"That's not an irrational position for her to take. Look what she has to lose," Newcomb said.

Ryans, too, said officers do not try to get tenants evicted by making arrests. "No time have they ever said this person has to go," Ryans said.

But he conceded police have "the upper hand."

"It's a Catch-22 situation, and I have to try to make the best decision for the Housing Authority."

Whether or not Burke is evicted from her $67-a-month apartment, she has paid dearly for her arrest. Burke, who is unemployed, had secured a scarce housing voucher shortly before her arrest. The voucher was yanked after the arrest, she said.

Burke's children had bragged all over the neighborhood that they were moving to a house at last.

"We're not moving," Burke told them recently. "We're getting evicted."

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

-- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383.

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