Wanted: Drug-Free Tenant, Must Pass Test

Florida housing complex screens residents for drugs

A a low-income housing complex here, literally on the other side of the tracks from an oceanfront, palm-fringed golf course, would-be tenants must meet an unusual requirement: They have to pass a drug test.

The company that owns this neatly groomed, semicircular arrangement of 12 stucco buildings does the usual background checks and verifies income requirements. But as of July, it also requires applicants older than 14 to submit a urine sample to be tested for a wide variety of drugs.

Interestingly, the policy has not raised a hue and cry from prospective tenants or civil libertarians about violations of privacy rights. Instead, the Congress Park complex is 99.7 percent filled, with a long waiting list for its three-bedroom apartments.

While drug testing has become more pervasive in America in the past decade, it has been limited primarily to the workplace (especially where employees are responsible for ensuring public safety) or to athletes (in the interest of ensuring fair competition). But testing prospective tenants takes drug screening into a new realm. And the willingness of tenants to submit is indicative of the trade-offs people will make in the pursuit of greater security.

Atlanta-based Trammel Crow Residential Services opened Congress Park - for which it receives federal tax credits - about a year and a half ago. It began a drug-testing policy over the summer because of a high level of drug-related criminal activity in the neighborhood.

"This is the first tax-credit, low-income property for Trammel," says Lynne Sheppard, property manager at Congress Park. "We thought if we took a proactive stand [against drug use], we could provide a healthier living environment for tenants."

In an era when low-income housing in many cities resembles bombed-out war zones, this lushly landscaped complex looks as inviting as the white, pink, and beige-washed stucco houses set amid mature banyan and palm trees on the other side of town. It is one of a few apartment complexes in the US to have taken this stance toward drugs.

Trammel officials got the idea after reading about an apartment complex in Euclid, Ohio, that instituted a similar policy last year. They then talked with the owners of that complex, who reported receiving 1,000 applications after announcing their policy.

Lake Worth, named after the US general who in 1842 ended Florida's war with the Seminole Indians, is one of the poorest communities in Palm Beach County. Countywide, the median annual income is $32,524; in Lake Worth it is $12,130, about $3,400 below the government's official poverty threshold for a family of four.

At Congress Park, the average annual gross income of tenants is $15,600, Ms. Sheppard says. The average family includes a single parent and three children, who pay $614 for a two-bedroom apartment or $708 for a three-bedroom.

Overall, residents have welcomed the policy, which will also require them to be tested for drugs when they renew their leases. People who live in other housing projects, where drugs proliferate, are applying for housing at Congress Park, Sheppard says.

So far, more than 100 tenants have been tested, and only one - a teenager - failed, she says. That family was not permitted to live in the complex.

So far, no one has challenged the policy. "It's not unconstitutional because it's not a government entity," says Robyn Blumner of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "Tenants of this complex have the option to move somewhere else if they don't want their intimate bodily fluids invaded by some stranger."

But most tenants don't seem to mind.

"I think it's a great idea," says David Wilson, who recently moved here from Miami with his girlfriend, who has two children. "Once you got drugs, things go down. You don't have that here. It's better for the kids, who look up to older people. If they are selling drugs, that's who the kids have as role models."

Kipp Singleton, a single mother of two, agrees. "I think it is wonderful. My main concern is the kids. I've had no problems living here, like at other places. I feel safe sitting on my balcony and watching my kids play."

Congress Park's 288 units come with venetian blinds, screened patios, and breakfast bars in kitchens. Green space separates the buildings. There's a swimming pool, basketball court, playground, in-line skating area, and barbecue area.

A YMCA summer camp and after-school activities also operate on the property, Sheppard says. In addition, Congress Park sponsors Girl and Boy Scouts and formed a Kids Klub for children who live here. Kids Klub participants earn bonus money, like Monopoly money, for picking up trash, taking care of flowers and shrubs that surround the buildings, and joining other activities designed to teach youngsters to take pride in their community.

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