Housing Authority Has Stronger Powers to Evict For Criminal Behavior of Tenants

In Boston Housing Authority v. Garcia (SJC-09753) (August 17, 2007), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court clarified the position after United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Department of Hous. & Urban Dev. v. Rucker, 535 U.S. 125, 130 (2002).

Rucker provided that Federal housing law, 42 U.S.C. § 1437d (1)(6) (2000), “unambiguously” requires lease terms “that vest local public housing authorities with the discretion to evict tenants for the drug-related activity of household members and guests whether or not the tenant knew, or should have known, about the activity.”

In the Garcia case, a Housing Court judge ruled “that the innocent tenant defense was no longer available under Massachusetts law to Doris Garcia, a BHA tenant, in light of the Rucker decision, and declined to admit evidence that she could not have foreseen or prevented the criminal conduct of two of her sons. ” The SJC agreed with the “Housing Court judge that Federal housing law preempts Massachusetts law that would otherwise permit a public housing tenant to defeat a lease termination based on the acts of a household member, by establishing that he or she could not have foreseen or prevented the misconduct.”

“The stated public housing policy of the United States is to “promote the goal of providing decent and affordable housing for all citizens through the efforts and encouragement of Federal, State, and local governments, and by the independent and collective actions of private citizens, organizations, and the private sector.” 42 U.S.C. § 1437 (a)(4) (2000). Consistent with this policy, Congress enacted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, with the objective of reducing drug-related crime in public housing and ensuring “public and other federally assisted low- income housing that is decent, safe, and free from illegal drugs.” Rucker, supra at 134, quoting 42 U.S.C. § 11901 (1) (1994). Specifically, Congress (through 42 U.S.C. § 1437d [1][6], and HUD (through its implementing regulations) have required that housing authorities use clauses in their leases that permit the termination of a tenant’s lease for crimes committed by household members, even where a tenant had no knowledge of and was not at fault for a household member’s criminal activity.(12) As the Rucker Court noted, the lodging of such discretionary authority with the housing authorities is integral to the accomplishment of the congressional objective because “[s]trict liability maximizes deterrence and eases enforcement difficulties.” Rucker, supra, citing Pacific Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Haslip, 499 U.S. 1, 14 (1991).(13)”

“With respect to the application of the requirement of cause in this case, the lease signed by Garcia permits eviction for the drug-related criminal activity of household members regardless of the tenant’s knowledge or ability to prevent the conduct. The judge found that Garcia’s sons were members of Garcia’s household at the time each engaged in drug-related criminal activity prohibited by the terms of the lease. Consequently, the judge found that Garcia had violated her lease.”

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