Chicago could become the first U.S. city to require all renters living in public housing to undergo mandatory drug testing to keep their residences. In an innovative program, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) seeks to prevent the dangers of crime-fueled life that had plagued older public housing communities with a protective plan, which includes replacing previously 100% low-income edifices with mixed-income structures. The mandatory testing proposal is another element in this attempt.
Long-time residents of Chicago’s public housing system consider the drug testing proposal to be a dehumanizing infringement on their Constitutional rights. In a recent protest against it, hundreds voiced their opposition to the policy’s implicit suggestion that poor people are more likely to use drugs. There is also great concern that the rule will be levied without considering individual violations carefully, resulting in unfair evictions. CHA leaders stress that if a tenant fails a drug test, he or she will only be asked to enter a treatment program. If the tenant refuses to comply, only then will eviction proceedings begin. So far only one in 51 people who have failed the drug test have faced eviction.
But this is no reason to sit back and let this proposal become policy. In fact, there are many compelling strikes against it.
The CHA wants this tool to reassure affluent groups that traditional housing tenants will not bring remnants of their old culture into the new spaces. This measure sadly exposes the stigma attached to public housing residents as harbingers of turf wars, drug abuse, and other outrageous beliefs. The projection of these stereotypes onto people who are innocent is not fair. Making them submit to drug tests to obtain housing is unconstitutional. Invading the privacy of the poor to make the rich feel more comfortable living with them is unconscionable.
The net result is: if you can afford to buy, you can do whatever you want at home. Everyone else is subject to the state’s will. The government should act to protect us, not sacrifice us to those with wealth. This policy illustrates our country’s continuing failure to live up to its ideals as they apply to those who are poor and black. CHA sought to create a public housing utopia, only to reveal the greater dystopia that persists.