Protecting Tenants Without Preemption: How State and Local Governments Can Lessen the Impact of HUD's One-Strike Rule

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Under a policy first enacted in 1988 and expanded in 1996, federally funded public housing authorities (“PHAs”) and private landlords renting their properties to tenants receiving federal housing assistance have been required to include a provision in all leases under which drug-related criminal activity as well as criminal activity that in any way poses a threat to other tenants or nearby residents constitutes ground for initiating eviction proceedings. This strict liability eviction policy, which has become known as the “One-Strike Rule,” was part of a broader congressional effort to combat the “reign of terror” that Congress believed drug dealers were imposing on public housing and assisted housing tenants. Like many of the crime-related policies enacted in the 1980s and 1990s, the One-Strike Rule has done little to reduce crime rates, but has been wildly successful in ensuring that the situation of poor households receiving federal assistance remains highly precarious. Calls for reform of the One-Strike Rule are almost as old as the policy itself, but given the political outlook of the current administration, the prospects for reform at the federal level are dim. While federal law and a combination of gridlock and unwillingness in the congressional and executive branches foreclose a range of possible strategies for reform, there is nonetheless room to mitigate the socially corrosive effects of the One-Strike Rule through legislative efforts at the state and local level. Courts in various jurisdictions have upheld state laws that protect vulnerable tenants despite the federal strict liability policy, and these holdings help to provide a framework for how state and local governments seeking to protect tenants can do so without their efforts necessarily falling prey to the Supremacy Clause. This article describes that framework and proposes three concrete measures that fit it. The article is structured as follows: after explaining the One-Strike Rule and the threat it poses to vulnerable tenants (Section II), the article discusses the burden the Rule imposes on tenants and the benefits it is supposed to bring to other parties, and argues that the resulting distribution of burdens and benefits is unjust (Section III). The article then lays out three concrete measures that state and local governments can enact to protect tenants who face eviction for criminal activity under the Rule without falling prey to a federal preemption challenge: requiring “good cause” for eviction, giving tenants the right to cure a breach of their lease, and providing tenants with free counsel in landlord-tenant court (Section IV).
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First archival date: 2022-01-13
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