The Constitutional rights of several residents were being violated in a low-income housing complex in Center, Texas. They were facing invasion of privacy and unequal protection to the laws rooted by racial discrimination. The Center Housing Authority (CHA) continually violated these residents’ Constitutional rights by breaking multiple federal laws. The landlord’s rules and regulations were so restrictive that the residents’ homes felt more like a penitentiary cell block.
The First Amendment protects the right of association, meaning the residents have the Constitutional right to invite guests in their homes without interference by the right of privacy, right to enjoy their property, and good public policy. The CHA director, Ms. Hemsworth implemented her own rules and regulations, restricting residents from having any an in-town, non-family member guest over and only allowing family members to visit up to two times per month or only 15 days a year.
One of the residents told Lone Star Legal Aid that she watches her grandchild when her daughter goes to work. Ms. Hemsworth told our client she was not allowed to have her daughter or granddaughter over more than two times a month and if she violated this order, she would have her daughter charged with criminal trespassing.
Ms. Hemsworth sent a resident a notice of eviction for having her male boyfriend visit her for overnight stays, something the CHA’ rules outlawed. What was offensive and illegal about this course of punishment was that it was unreasonably reached into the resident’s bedroom in effort to control their personal lives with no legitimate purpose.
A resident explained a time when she came home to find maintenance snooping in her home without a reasonable purpose and was instructed by Ms. Hemsworth to do so. Several residents complained of finding cameras installed in their homes. They later discovered they were being watched for guests and received notices with threatening eviction language.
The Fourteenth Amendment was violated by failing procedural due process and violation of substantive due process stemming from CHA’s outrageous rules. CHA required residents to provide periodic detailed reports of expenses, well beyond what is required by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to verify income eligibility. If their expense report showed a large purchase such as a household appliance or television, CHA would increase rent without notice or right of protest or appeal. Federal regulations require that rent increases can only be determined from an annual review of income, not guesswork or assumptions. The residents still had their right to contest or appeal rent increase, but many residents, including Lone Star Legal Aid clients did not know that or did not know how to do that.
In addition to violating three Constitutional Amendments, the injustice didn’t stop there. CHA would wake up residents at late hours of the night to park their cars how Ms. Hemsworth wanted them parked. She would schedule last minute appointments with the residents and expected them to miss work to make the appointments or otherwise be penalized. These appointments were scheduled to be scolded for parking wrong or about the type of guest they had over the prior day. CHA continually threatened to terminate their leases if they didn’t follow these unreasonable and illegal lease provisions and policies.
Lone Star Legal Aid attorney, David Guillory, took on the case and was determined to fight for their rights amended by the United States Constitution. Each of the clients were a resident of the CHA receiving rental assistance under provisions of the revised U.S. Housing Act of 1937. Contents of the lease are federal law within what is allowed by the HUD. CHA denied any action was unlawful. The overreaching crisis created by the CHA’s rules was that each of the three named clients or plaintiffs was being evicted for the violation of illegal, unconstitutional rules.
“When I first heard the client’s stories, I not only knew that there were Fair Housing Act and constitutional violations, but I knew she had a story that if a stranger told it to you in the five minutes you had while waiting for a bus, you would be outraged and instantly in her corner,” David Guillory said. “This was a good jury story that screamed injustice regardless of whether it violated any laws and regardless of the race of the parties.”
As a result, Lone Star Legal Aid filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas challenging all of the rules and policies. The residents alleged that the housing authority’s policies and practices violated their rights. After a one-year fight, the housing authority redrafted its policies and standard lease to comply with federal law and to be more sensitive to the rights of its residents. The case was settled and by agreement, Lone Star Legal Aid now has the final right of the approval of language when it comes to its clients lease and the rules set forth in it.
“By forcing the Center Housing Authority to revamp and rethink its policies, we improved the lives of more than 200 families at two large housing complexes,” David Guillory said. “This was what the Legal Services Corporation was formed for. Very few of our clients have big damages cases, so to make a difference in our communities, were are always looking for impact cases where one or two named plaintiffs can change policies and business practices that improve the lives of many similarly situated people.”
* Names were changed to protect the identity of the individual(s).