Nine months after Joyce C. Thorpe and her children moved into McDougald Terrace, a public housing project in Durham, N.C., she was elected president of the tenants' association. The next day, she was told she would be evicted by the end of the month.
That was in 1965. Thorpe fought her eviction all the way to the Supreme Court. Her case and a handful of similar ones prompted the Housing and Urban Development Department in 1967 to issue regulations designed to protect the rights of tenants in federally subsidized public housing.
The Supreme Court went on to uphold HUD's authority to issue the regulations, applied them retroactively to Thorpe's case and said the regulations were mandatory for local public housing authorities.
Now the Reagan administration is considering revising--and possibly eliminating--the regulations to give housing authorities more muscle to collect delinquent rents and evict disruptive tenants.
HUD spokesman Tom Bacon said the proposal is "still evolving." The regulations have been targeted by the Presidential Task Force on Regulatory Relief, and Bacon said the changes are being made as part of the move to streamline and deregulate the government.
Under the current procedures, if a tenant fails to pay rent, the directors of a public housing project must give him 14 days' notice, in writing, that he faces eviction. The project managers must give 30 days' notice if the eviction is for other reasons, such as failure to provide financial information or maintain the apartment.
If the project managers decide a tenant is dangerous to other residents, the authority can evict him within a "reasonable time." In all cases, the managers must have "good cause" to evict a tenant.
Tenants can protest decisions before an impartial board acceptable to both sides. If the tenant disagrees with the board's ruling, he can go to court and sue. If the project directors disagree, they can take the matter before the governing board of the local housing authority.
HUD regulations guarantee a tenant's right to present evidence, to challenge and cross-examine project authorities, to see housing authority files and to have a translator if he can't speak English.
According to the recent Calendar of Federal Regulations, HUD is considering two approaches now. One would eliminate the regulations, leaving the issue to state and local governments. However, HUD noted, "This would provide maximum deregulation but may be infeasible in light of the extent of already developed judicial authority" regarding the rights of tenants in public housing, and could lead to lawsuits.
The alternative would require housing authorities to give tenants written notice of termination based on "good cause," but to require tenants to sue in state courts if they want to contest their eviction. HUD said it would probably have to make special provisions for states where the laws do not protect the due process rights of tenants.
"In many states, the landlord-tenant court proceedings are far less than due process requires," the reason for the various court cases in the 1960s that led to the HUD regulations, said Florence Roisman, an attorney with the National Housing Law Project.
Roisman said that even in those states with good landlord-tenant procedures, tenants would have trouble appealing an eviction because of the cost and inconvenience of a court case.