Housing proposal would punish landlords who harbor drug dealers
NORTH ADAMS — A proposal by City Councilor Keith Bona aims to punish landlords who knowingly harbor drug dealers, but civil rights advocates and those with experience working in the realm of the heroin addiction question its legality and efficacy.
Introduced in January, the proposal would impose fines on landlords who, after official notification of a drug arrest on their property, do not evict the charged tenants. The council is scheduled to discuss the ordinance on Tuesday, but action will likely be delayed until a subcommittee can meet and review it.
"I want to discuss all levels, minimally making property owners aware when an arrest happens at their property. Maximum, forced eviction," Bona told The Eagle. "At this point, without hearing all views, the only thing I can fully support is notifying landlords of incidents. Beyond that is all on the table for discussion."
Under the initial proposal, a landlord would face fines if he or she did not take action to evict a tenant arrested on drug-related charges within a to-be-determined timeframe.
"I do feel there should be some recourse for landlords who knowingly keep drug dealers in their property," Bona said. "I can't imagine any good landlord would risk safety to their other tenants and their reputation for housing active criminals."
The Eagle reached out to landlords, legal experts, and advocates for addiction recovery services for input on the proposal as currently written. Their views varied, but none agreed with forced evictions.
"I'm deeply concerned with the notion that the presumption of innocence would be thrown out by a city, and this proposal seems to say that anytime someone is charged they can be evicted. I think that's deeply disturbing," said Bill Newman, director of the Western Massachusetts office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
At its stands, such an ordinance would be likely illegal under Massachusetts law, according to Newman.
"The city simply does not have the legal authority to pass an ordinance like this," Newman said, because the state's laws already address this issue.
State law already provides recourse for landlords who wish to terminate the lease of tenants — who have a right to a hearing in housing court — allegedly involved in criminal activity. Any landlords who look the other way on this behavior, under state law, can be fined up to $1,000 or face up to one year in jail.
North Adams-based criminal defense attorney Richard Taskin said that in more than 20 years of experience, that right to evict has only been invoked on a client facing drug charges once in the Northern Berkshires.
Douglas Quattrochi, of the Massachusetts Landlords Association, said some landlords may find such a law useful while others could find it invasive — "especially if the tenant wasn't dealing, pays the rent and is otherwise harmless."
"I don't know that the ordinance as written will hit the hardened dealers more than the quote-unquote 'harmless' users," he said. "And I don't see anything about support services for opiate addicts, especially, which we know is a serious problem. It might make sense to couple the two issues."
Newman suggested that the ordinance could be "enormously unfair" and "punish all of the innocent people living in the apartment."
Quattrochi also wondered what would happen to the evictees.
"I would say that unless North Adams is prepared to deal with an increase in its local homeless population, residents should consider this ordinance carefully. Worcester and other communities being larger may have resources that North Adams does not," he said.
Newman noted this approach flies in the face of efforts endorsed by President Barack Obama and Gov. Charlie Baker.
Wendy Penner, the director of prevention programs at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, advocates for enhanced educational prevention programs and increased recovery service availability.
"Just like we can't arrest our way out of the epidemic, we can't evict our way out of the epidemic," she said.