Housing Complex

Marijuana Decriminalization Puts Housing Authority in a Bind


Last fall, the D.C. Housing Authority's board of directors voted to approve a change to the agency's rules, with the aim of making things simpler for the Housing Authority when confronting troublesome tenants. But as of today, things just got a lot more complicated.

The rule change gave the Housing Authority, which administers public housing and federally subsidized vouchers for low-income residents, the power to kick out program participants for misdemeanors and other infractions not previously covered by the agency’s guidelines. The Housing Authority justified the change by arguing that it had been nearly impossible to terminate problematic clients who were terrorizing their neighbors. Housing advocates countered that the Housing Authority would be able to put people and their families out on the street for something as minor as possession of a small amount of marijuana.

Well, as of today, possession of a small amount of marijuana is no longer a crime in the District—the punishment is now a $25 fine. That's given the Housing Authority a lot to sort out. And according to Housing Authority spokesman Rick White, it's still sorting it out.

"DCHA, along with other federally funded organizations across the nation, is currently reviewing and finalizing its options pursuant to federal and local law regarding the use of recreational and medicinal use of marijuana, including the reconciliation of guidance from both the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the United States Department of Justice,” White said in a statement in response to questions on how the Housing Authority would handle people caught with marijuana under the new D.C. law.

That's about as vague an answer as possible—but to be fair, the Housing Authority has a number of difficult questions to answer, and people to answer to. Remember, the federal government, which is the main source of Housing Authority funding, still considers marijuana a Schedule 1 controlled substance, and the Park Police plans to continue arresting people caught with pot on federal land.

The first, and most basic, question, is how the Housing Authority handles tenants who are issued a $25 fine for possession. That tenant would never have been charged with a crime, meaning that the Housing Authority's rules likely wouldn't allow the agency to kick the person out. Then again, an explicit policy of tolerance could irk the feds and risk a loss of funding in the future, particularly if Republicans retake the White House.

If the Housing Authority does decide not to remove tenants for possession—and remember, it's not obligated to under the current rules; it just has the ability to, if it decides removal is warranted—then the question becomes what happens to people who were charged with marijuana possession before the decriminalization law took effect. Those people did commit a crime, but it might seem unfair to treat them differently from people who did the same thing a few weeks later.

And finally, if the Housing Authority adopts a stance of tolerance, there's the issue of federal charges. If a Housing Authority tenant is caught with pot on, say, the National Mall rather than a few yards away on city land, should he or she face the prospect of eviction?

These are thorny matters for an agency with both local and federal obligations. Some Housing Authority tenants are likely pleased to see marijuana decriminalized; after all, most of them are black, and black Washingtonians are eight times more likely than white ones to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to a recent ACLU study, even though blacks and whites in America smoke pot at about equal rates. But for the agency that houses them, the new law is little more than a headache.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Alan

    If we ran this city based on (not) irking the feds and worrying about a potential Republican White House, we'd run this city into the ground. The local electorate has spoken. If they have a problem with people smoking on the premises, they should ban all smoking, not just marijuana smoking. As for getting caught with contraband that is not being smoked, I don't think that should be grounds for eviction. If the feds disagree, we'll be able to make up the money when we decriminalize and tax the sale of marijuana.

  • oh please

    In nearly every apartment I've ever lived in for the past decade, there has been a clause specifically stating that I can't smoke in the apartment, and that violating that is grounds for fines or eviction. Same goes for weed and other drugs. If someone is living in public housing, why shouldn't they be expected to follow some simple rules? If you can't live without your wake 'n bake, move somewhere else. Can afford it? Maybe cut back on the weed and land a steady job. This is the most pathetic non-issue I can think of.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/2014/07/17/marijuana-decriminalization-puts-housing-authority-in-a-bind/ Let’s get real

    How nice for these people that they can spend a lifetime in housing projects without paying a cent in rent, compliments of the taxpaying public. It appears that these able-bodied people have extra cash to spend on marijuana, so they do not need to have the roof over their heads paid for by the rest of society. Throw them out on the street!

  • jorge

    @Let's: actually they do pay rent. I'm guessing you don't know much about this topic.

  • KEEp it Real

    Jorge is right. Alot of Public Housing residents are working people who cannot afford the ridiculous raise in market rent over the last decade. People who were born and raised here. I live in Public Housing and work 40 hours a week. My rent is 930.00.

  • Typical DC BS

    How nice we get to subsidize folks who have attested that they can't afford to pay the rent it takes to live in DC, but somehow find the money for weed. Brilliant.

    Stop the subsidized housing nonsense for everybody EXCEPT the mentally and physically challenged folks.


  • kob

    a bigger issue may be what happens inside condos, apartment complexes. Traveling smoke from cigarettes was a complaint in our building, and there's nothing we could do to regulate private residence smoking. But what about marijuana?

  • Northwesterneer

    Keep It Real... eventually you have to decide to improve your skills through school or move over the border, maybe not now, but probably 15 years from now. Think about your 15 year plan...

  • Neither lib nor conservative

    It stumps me why I had to cut even my basic cable (finally) because I am just scraping by in middle-class job, but when I see the public housing complex across the street, nearly 2/3 have Direct TV! I have no solution, admittedly, to housing our poor neighbors, but can we at least cut the cord on premium channels??

  • Neither lib nor conservative

    I think this would be a good article, Mr. Wiener.

  • Gilland McGuire

    Hey! Wait a minute!!, DCHA always stated doesn't get involve with tenant/landlords disputes, even when tenant report to DCHA MOLD PROBLEMS IN SUBSIDY DWELLINGS. DCHA is off the hook on this ONE, and many more complaints on landlords.Corporations has free hands to abuse their consumers all over the country because of low tax base offerings in the cities.SAD FOR CITIZENS because SUPPLY & DEMAND of a disadvantage population. NO REPERSENTATION!!!

  • http://nyirkaijoslat.beep.com peter fonstadt

    Mihelyt közzétettem „ Yotengrit 2 „ c. könyvemben a „Nyirkai jóslatot”, a mások szellemi hulladékából élők serege vetette rá magát. Csűrték, csavarták, hamisították, magyarázták. Lett belőle „nyitrai”, sőt „nyiglai” jóslat is. Védtek, támadtak vele pártokat, személyeket, fűztek hozzá magyarázatokat. Jelentkeztek „póttartalékos próféták” is, akik a folytatás sugallatait vélték fülükben zümmögni. Nem mesét költök, de egy két lábon járó fajtánkbéli azt jelentette, hogy ő volna személy szerint a jóslatban említett „zengő sivatag tigrise”. Gondoltam, elszállásolom egy jó hírű állatkertben, de ezt zokon vette. Ám akadtak tudós koponyák is, akik elolvasták minden irányból és filológiai csapdák segítségével rájöttek, hogy én egyet s mást elhallgattam a jóslatból. Így igaz! Visszatartottam a személy szerint rám vonatkozó jóslatokat, hozzám közel álló személyekre és a Yotengrit Egyházra vonatkozókat, meg még sok egyebet, ami a jóslat közlésekor nyugtalanságot válthatott volna ki. Most, miután lelepleztek és többen is követelik, mint mondják, a „teljes igazságot”, szabadjára engedem a teljes jóslatot.

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