Tenants evicted from federally subsidized housing for drug use have no recourse under Wisconsin law, according to a state Supreme Court decision.
The justices ruled 6-1 that a federal housing law overrides state statute when a tenant of public housing is evicted for drug-related criminal activity.
More specifically, the court cited a federal law requiring local public-housing authorities to include drug-related activity among the grounds for eviction listed in their leases. The federal law, according to the court, trumps a state law preventing landlords from evicting tenants unless they have been given five days to remedy a breach of a lease.
The court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Annette Ziegler, argues that the state law stands in the way of Congress’ goals in adopting the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.
“To achieve public housing that is decent, safe and free from illegal drugs,” Ziegler wrote, “Congress required public housing authorities to retain in their leases the power to evict tenants for any drug-related criminal activity.”
The case, Milwaukee City Housing Authority vs. Cobb, stems from the 2013 eviction of Felton Cobb from Merrill Park, a publicly subsidized housing project operated by the Milwaukee Housing Authority.
According to court documents, James Darrow, housing authority public safety officer, was making rounds at Merrill Park on June 5 that year when he came to believe that Cobb had been smoking marijuana. The housing authority notified Cobb four days later that he had violated the terms of his lease by engaging in illegal drug use. By the end of the month, the authority had given Cobb a 14-day notice of eviction.
Cobb conceded that his lease listed drug-related crimes as grounds for eviction, but argued that Wisconsin statute gave him five days to remedy the violation.
The Court of Appeals agreed and reversed the circuit court’s judgment of eviction.
While the majority of the Supreme Court Justices agreed with the court of appeals, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson sided with the circuit court’s decision in favor of Cobb and noted in her dissenting opinion that federal law does not require eviction but instead gives local housing authorities discretion to evict tenants for drug-related criminal activity. And, she wrote, the Milwaukee Housing Authority did not show that it had exercised that discretion, making it appear as though Cobb’s eviction was a blind application of law.
The goal of public subsidized housing is to provide low-income residents with decent, safe housing that is free from drugs. Still, the discretion given to local housing authorities must be “guided by compassion and common sense,” Abrahamson wrote, quoting a 2002 letter sent to local housing authorities by Mel Martinez, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.