THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY SECRETARY OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT HENRY CISNEROS
The Briefing Room
1:07 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Most of you, I think, had an opportunity to hear the President earlier today as he outlined our new efforts on nationwide enforcement of a one-strike-and-you're-out policy. I'm delighted to have Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros here who can tell you a little more about some of the things the President discussed today and answer any questions you might have on that initiative. Henry, it's good to have you here.
SECRETARY CISNEROS: Thank you, Mike.
Also joining me here, Mike, is Walter Dellinger, Assistant Attorney General, who has headed the Justice Department team working on this and can speak -- and will speak to some of these issues as well. I'll be very brief.
Most of you heard the President's remarks earlier and the others who spoke. Today is, first and foremost, about the conditions that people deserve who live in public housing. Just because they're poor doesn't mean that they should live in conditions that are unacceptable, unsafe. So today is about creating conditions of peacefulness and safety for residents and dealing harshly with those who would abuse, intimidate, threaten or hurt people who live in public housing.
The guidelines that were set forth today -- and they are captured in this book entitled, "One Strike and You're Out," have two elements. The first is at the front end to guide public housing authorities in drafting leases in such a way that the terms of residents are laid out and persons who would violate those terms by being involved with guns or gangs or drugs, criminal activity from public housing, are set forth in the lease. In other words, we have the legal basis on which to remove people because the lease states what the terms of residence are.
The second piece of the policy is to actually set out the enforcement mechanisms -- enforcement mechanisms related to actual eviction policies -- some guidelines on how decisions, close calls can be made, basically setting out the procedures that are involved in this. For all of these policies to succeed, it requires cooperation in communities. Mayors and police departments, public housing agencies, residents and judges -- everyone cooperating together to try to create these conditions.
Now, let me say, as I've been around the country, the number one group of people asking for these kinds of policies are the residents themselves. I had a town hall meeting in Detroit recently, about 300 people present. I asked hard questions about what people could tolerate and couldn't in the drafting of our guidelines. And it was unanimous that people felt that we needed to be much stricter about admissions, leases and evictions because, frankly, the conditions for too many people are such that they just can't live in these settings.
I'll always remember a visit to Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago about a year and a half ago where a mother said to me, "Mr. Secretary, please just make it stop." I mean, she was pleading, nearly crying, "Please, just make it stop. We can't stand it anymore." The guns, the shooting, the drugs, putting children to sleep in bathtubs and showing me the bullet holes through the windows of the children's bedrooms, random shooting incidents, and the young women being frisked by gang members as they come into the buildings because the gang members control effectively the lobbies of the buildings and decide who comes in and out -- just when they go out for something as innocuous as to get groceries, but they are frisked on their return. Unspeakable conditions that have to be addressed.
We think we've found a way to do this in a way that is consistent with concerns for civil liberties, at the same time keeping a focus on the people who live in public housing.
Public housing is not a right in the United States. It is a privilege. We have only money for about a quarter of the Americans who are eligible to live in some kind of assisted housing. That means we have three-quarters -- again, as many persons as are in public housing -- three times as many as are in public housing on waiting lists wanting to come in. And so for us to think about this as somehow a setting where we have to be mindful first of the rights of those who would sell drugs, abuse, threaten, try to intimidate through control and gangs and so forth, is just a mistaken way to proceed. So the bottom line here is we're trying to make these settings safer.
This is part of a larger context, I might say to you, in which we are transforming public housing in the most profound way since its inception. This is not a story for today, but I would like to draw your attention in the weeks and months ahead to the 23,000 units that we are now bringing down and replacing with townhouses in some of the most difficult developments in America, the housing authorities we have taken over. You know the Chicago case, but there are nine others like where we are actually running them today or in some kind of partnership.
But, first things first. We have to create a base condition of safety and peace for people who want to live there decently and raise their children. And that's what today is about -- achieving some of these basic conditions.
With that, let me ask the Assistant Attorney General, Mr. Walter Dellinger to speak.
MR. DELLINGER: Thank you. I've just been asked to say a few words about the legal background for the policy that Secretary Cisneros has described.
For the past month, the Department of Justice has worked with the Secretary and with his officials at HUD to ensure that in addition to being tough and effective, that the policy complies with all statutory and constitutional requirements. As the President emphasized this morning, it's critical to take action to protect residents of public housing from fear and intimidation and to promote their ability to lead their lives in safety and in peace. But it is also important that we do this in a way that preserves the civil and constitutional rights of public housing residents and of those who seek to join them.
It became clear this morning where we had a gathering of a number of residents of public housing, public housing officials, law enforcement officers, residents of public housing, they're concerns are enormous. And it came through to me that our civil liberties concerns begin with an understanding that a safe, crime-free environment for raising children and families is itself a fundamental human need.
We've considered the legal issues in this case. We've considered, for example, whether or not a conviction is a necessary prerequisite to eviction and have concluded in agreement with HUD that a conviction is not. Eviction is a civil, not a criminal matter. Tenants in both public and private housing are subject to eviction for violations of appropriate lease terms, whether it's keeping an unlawful pet or violating any of the other reasonable terms of a lease.
Lease terms prohibiting activities like this are no different. The fact that no conviction is required does not leave public housing authorities free to evict tenants on the basis of speculation or suspicion. Public housing tenants have due process rights, and those rights will be protected.
And the guidelines set out the due process rights that are required under the law and by these guidelines -- the right to a hearing, the right to know the evidence, the right to be informed of the exact charges against you, the right to a court hearing before eviction for a resident who would resist it. And these are intended to protect tenants against unfounded accusations and unwarranted sanctions.
In short, we believe that the policies that Secretary Cisneros has announced will accomplish both goals -- providing strong and effective measures to protect the safety and enhance the well-being of residents -- while, at the same time, preserving the rights of public housing tenants and applicants.
SECRETARY CISNEROS: We'll take some questions.
Q So that means you can be accused and evicted?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: It means you don't have to be formally convicted in a court system, but if there is evidence that authorities can bring and resident leaders are involved in the process and there is a due process that involves a hearing, that a person can be removed under civil procedures as opposed to criminal procedures.
Q Why is it not a violation of civil liberties to evict someone, a grandmother, say, who's grandson is dealing in drugs?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: Well, those sort of complicated cases, and we will encounter those, will require discretion on the part of public housing managers in this hearing process that we're describing. I have visited developments, actually been involved in sweeps of buildings where we found drugs in a grandmother's apartment. And she said she didn't know anything about it, that her grandson was responsible for it, and some discretion was applied in that case.
Now, if it is a repeated incident, if the crimes are more serious than that, if all of the residents nearby know that drugs are being dealt out of that apartment, that bears on the discretion that local managers will use.
But, frequently -- it's an interesting thing -- the residents and the resident leaders in buildings have a pretty good sense of who is abusing the rules and bringing the cancer of drugs and violence into a building. And they can be relied upon to be of some help in these processes.
Q What would this policy do, if anything, for the example you cited a couple of minutes ago of the gang members who are hanging out in the lobby, frisking people that go past, if they're not residents of that particular building? Frequently, you know, that's the case.
SECRETARY CISNEROS: Well, the first step is to deal with the people who are on the leases. And some of those that I described might well be residents of the building, gang members who live in the building. So the fact that the leases are written in such a way that people with criminal histories and drug records are not tenants in the building, and the fact that we have these eviction procedures solve some of the problems.
It begins to create a climate of zero tolerance, and it's easier then to identify people who are there to make trouble, who don't live there. The whole management environment of dealing with a runaway, out of control situation is improved by the guidelines we have set forth.
Q Is everyone under lease now going to have to sign a new lease now with these new conditions? And, realistically, how long is it going to take to get these new leases and new enforcement mechanisms in place?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: The policy will take effect immediately, and we're hoping that housing authorities act promptly. Many already are. Today's guidelines clarify and sharpen and add new statutory strength because there is new law that has been passed on this subject recently. But much of what we have been -- are advocating here housing authorities can do under existing guidelines. Normally, leases come up every year. People have to renew the lease. My guess is what most housing authorities will do will be offer the new provisions in the lease renewal period and not force people to sign a new lease in the middle of a lease period.
Q So what has been the problem? Why haven't these been enforced previously?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: Several things. First, there wasn't a great deal of clarity in the way the statutes existed. Secondly, not everyone had the word. And thirdly, court rulings and other provisions seemed to be running at odds. And by passing new law, as well as clarifying the regulations we have, we are clarifying.
Now, those of you who were over there earlier as the President spoke know that we highlighted places like Toledo, Ohio, and Macon, Georgia, and Greensboro, North Carolina, and several others -- Richmond -- very well-managed housing authority with very high overall scores who have been doing this for the last number of years. And the result has been dramatic drops in overall crime, dramatic drops in drug arrests on sites, dramatic drops in violent crime. So the evidence seems to be that those who have been acting and have been reading the law in such a way that they do it, are having great success. We're just trying to make it easier for everybody to follow that model.
Q What is the extent of liability for a person whose guests commit these types of crimes in the complex, even if they, say, may not know about their guests having a criminal record, or that they have literally no control over this person showing up at their doorstep?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: Well, certainly I don't think one would penalize an existing tenant for not knowing of someone's record. But if that guest is a regular guest and conducting criminal activity out of an apartment, at some point the host family does bear responsibility. And these guidelines do indicate that people have to accept responsibility for who they bring into public housing, as family members or guests who would create crime -- who would create criminal activity.
Let me just say once again, we're acting at the request of residents who say the present situation cannot stand -- the drugs, the gangs, the guns make life unlivable. And I will simply say to you that I've been in too many developments where the only choice that young people have is which gang they will join, not whether they want to choose that lifestyle or whether they want to be honor students, but simply, out of self-protection, which gang. That's just an unacceptable situation to watch American children grow up in those settings.
Q If I could follow up on the question --
SECRETARY CISNEROS: Sure, but maybe Mr. Dellinger would want to expand on that.
MR. DELLINGER: Well, I just want to add one thought. I mean, a couple of you have raised the question about making tenants responsible for the conduct of persons in the household. Those are persons who are members of the household and persons they have control over and responsibility for -- and it is tough. As the Secretary said this morning, that this is about raising standards of expectation; that you have an affirmative obligation as a lease-holder to make sure that your premises aren't being used as a base for drug -- criminal drug activities and other criminal activities that disturb the peace of the residents.
If you have the guidance -- and I think Mike is going to make available that Dawn has, in that guidance on page eight, sets out the standards about responsibility for other members of the household. So you may want to look on page eight and you'll see a complete discussion of how it is suggested by HUD that local housing authorities deal with the problem of responsibility.
SECRETARY CISNEROS: Do you want to follow up?
Q What about the instances where you may have a woman resident with a former boyfriend who just insists upon showing up at her door, and at a certain point, they want to dispatch with her to get rid of him. I mean, a housing authority would have the broad authority to do that kind of thing?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: Within guidelines, obviously. I mean, we've talked about the due process. We've talked about the hearing procedures. We've talked about the involvement of other residents.
But -- I mean, I don't want to get into the details of a former boyfriend who may or may not be there at her request and so forth. I mean, if this is a person who brings criminal activity and drug sales to the building and is there repeatedly at her request, then she will bear some responsibility for that. On the other hand, if this is a stalker situation of somebody who is there against her will, then she knows the authorities to go to to complain about having him removed. So there's a lot of discretion that will have to come up in these case-by-case situations.
Q Is there any security in these places?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: Yes, ma'am, there is security. Yes, there is frequently paid security. We have security guards in many of the buildings more and more, and police relationships with the local police department to enhance police coverage. But not all of the buildings in this environment of tougher budgets actually have a guard at every door. So it's an environment in which you just have to clean it up so the people can have a reasonable chance to live.
Again, I don't want to weigh too heavy on the anecdotal, but I've been into buildings where there are no lights because the gang members have knocked out every single hallway light and every elevator light because when darkness comes, they don't want to be a silhouette to the gang members in the adjacent buildings when the shooting starts. So the poor residents, literally, at dark, -- I've been in elevators where you hold your hand in front of your face and cannot see your hand. And mothers are expected to bring their children with groceries into such places. It's an impossible situation.
Q To pardon a local question, Chicago has long been reported to be a hotbed of such activity. What kind of effect do you expect it to have in public housing there?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: I think it's going to have a very significant effect, and, indeed, Chicago is one of the places since we took over the Chicago Housing Authority last June where we have implemented some more stringent eviction policies and evictions are up and crime levels are down in many of the specific developments where these more stringent eviction policies have been put in place. We can get you some specific numbers on Chicago. I saw them in the last day or so. I haven't committed them to memory.
Q This policy is already in effect there?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: It is already in effect. It will probably be made more stringent and more broad as a result of today's guidelines.
Q Mr. Secretary, how are you putting the squeeze on public housing authorities to compel them to enforce this one strike policy?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: Well, what we are doing is we have a system of review of housing authorities. And extra money that they might want for things such as new developments and new construction is dependent upon a management grading system. We are making compliance with one strike and compliance with criminal enforcement policies an element of the management performance grading system.
So those who do a better job are rewarded by access to pools of resources. And those who do a poor job, in effect, penalize themselves. So this is more than just a general admonition. This is building into what we regard good management adherence to these policies.
Q Well, there's no longer any flexibility? Public housing authorities that receive federal funds must now enforce this policy?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: The guidelines stipulate that -- they need not. They may choose not to. but they end up penalizing themselves in the grading system. I mean, there's choice, but the choice has a price.
Q Sir, if I could follow up on that, how do you judge who's doing a good job and who's doing a --
SECRETARY CISNEROS: Well, there's a very sophisticated grading system. I have in my pocket, for example, a listing of the 40 largest housing authorities in America with their grades. We grade on about 12 characteristics, like whether or not they're handling vacancies, whether or not they're dealing with their back orders, what their maintenance is like, whether or not they're collecting their rents, et cetera. These are kind of management safeguards.
For example, St. Paul, Minnesota, out of 100 grades 98.6 -- that's the best performing large housing authority in America -- Denver, 98.4; Richmond, 98.3. On the other hand, the same list has the worst performers among these 40. New Orleans scored 28.7 out of 100; District of Columbia, 33.3 out of 100; Detroit, 34.6 out of 100; and Philadelphia, 35; Chicago, 44. So we have an existing grading system. We're just incorporating compliance with these criminally-related enforcement measures into the grading system.
Q Mr. Secretary, do you think there's something inherent in these large-scale housing developments where thousands or tens of thousands of people that's conducive to crime and gang-related activity?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: No, I don't. As a matter of fact, if I had gone down this list, I would have quickly come among the good performers to New York City, which is the largest housing authority in America by a factor of better than double the next largest. And it grades 91.6 on our grading system. Public housing in New York has tended to work, even though they are big, high-rise buildings.
Fundamentally, if you were to press me and ask what is the one, single thing that matters most, it is an income mix where we can achieve an income mix, as New York has maintained all of these years, public housing tends to work. Where we lost an income mix and have only the very poorest of the poor, where no one works and every family is a single-parent household, the buildings tend not to work.
A second element, integrated into this income mix situation, is good, adequate controls on criminal activity. They really go hand in hand in many ways.
Q In one of your previous visits here, you talked about possible efforts to keep guns out of public housing projects. What has happened on that?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: We have no law that allows us to keep all guns out of public housing. There have been legislation introduced in the past that would have kept guns out of public housing, period. But those did not pass, and there are civil liberties questions associated whether people who live in public housing have the right to keep legal weapons, hunting weapons and other legal weapons. So that's not an issue that's on the front burner at this point.
Q Isn't this going to require a lot more manpower from the police? Aren't you going to require their cooperation to try to enforce some of this, and do they have the ability to --
SECRETARY CISNEROS: It may require some additional manpower from police, not just local police, but security guards and U.S. attorneys' offices and others. In many communities we have, under the aegis of something we're calling "Operation Safe Home," dramatically intensified our police presence in public housing.
For example, the new mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown, is about to announce a major commitment of police personnel to public housing settings. So, in many places across the country, the recognition that a certain critical mass of policing is necessary to get control of the projects is taking hold.
Q What's the likelihood that this policy would have the effect of pushing people into a surrounding neighborhood and increasing crime rates in areas that are not public housing but are near public housing?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: Well, I think we have to be vigilant in neighborhoods all across the board. But, certainly, it is not a viable strategy to say that, you know, we want to keep the crime in public housing because we don't want it to move to the rest of the city when already, if you and I were to go to cities and go to a police substation and walk in and some the map on the wall of their incidents of crime from last month, and they had red pins all over the high-crime areas, you could almost pick out the housing projects today by the incidents of crime in those places.
We don't want to chase crime elsewhere. We want to end it. We want to deal with the people who are responsible, but it is not an option to continue on the present course and allow this concentration of crime where these people live. And they deserve better, and we can do better.
Thank you very much for allowing me to come over.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:30 P.M. EST