SUPPOSE THAT tenants living in a public housing project routinely vandalize the property and terrorize their neighbors. How quickly should the building manager be able to evict them? According to Vice President Bush's task force on regulatory reform, the process can drag on for months because of federal requirements for tenant hearings and appeals that the administration now proposes to eliminate.
In fact, current Housing and Urban Development Department rules allow public housing managers to dispense with informal hearings and appeals when tenants pose a threat to the health or safety of other tenants or building employees. But in less clear-cut cases, the special hearing process that public housing managers must now conduct could add a month or more to the subsequent time consumed by state- required court eviction proceedings.
HUD's current management thinks federally required hearings add an unnecessary burden to the difficult task of managing public housing. They argue that if, as public housing advocates claim, the informal hearings really do save time and money by avoiding court proceedings, building managers will keep them even without a federal rule. In any case, since poor people living in private rental housing don't get special hearings, why should public housing tenants?
On reason is the generally accepted rule that in dealing with its most defenseless citizens, the federal government should set a standard of behavior considerably above that of the most mean-spirited jurisdiction in the country. In some states, an otherwise model tenant who has irritated the management with justifiable complaints about poor maintenance could, as the result of a one-time delay in paying rent, find himself on the street with as little as five days' notice.
It is possible, or even probable, that the current federal rules are an unnecessarily burdensome drain on scarce public housing resources. This is especially true in jurisdictions where state and local laws already provide protections. But deciding on a reasonable compromise requires gathering sufficient information from many areas and types of projects -- including the many well-run projects that seem to be able to cope with current requirements. Thus far, HUD has based its plan on an unspecified number of anecdotal complaints. That's not a good enough basis for action.