MDHA to terminate leases over marijuana citations - WSMV News 4

MDHA to terminate leases over marijuana citations

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Under a new Nashville ordinance, some people may dodge hefty fines or even jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

But others could lose their housing, even if an offense never shows up on their criminal record.

A spokeswoman said the Metro Development and Housing Agency could start sending termination letters to tenants as early as next week.

“It doesn’t matter the size of the amount of drugs with you, it is a zero tolerance policy,” said Jamie Berry, the director of communications for MDHA.

In September, Metro Council passed an ordinance that gives police the choice of issuing a civil penalty for simple possession of marijuana.

That means offenders could perform 10 hours of community service or pay a $50 ticket without any offenses showing up on their records.

Prior to the ordinance, defendants could face up to a year in jail and pay up to $2,500 in fines.

Police still retain the option of charging offenders with a misdemeanor.

The change was welcomed by many in Nashville, including one woman who received a citation earlier this month.

“It was a surprise, but I was happy about it,” she said. “I would have rather just gotten that citation and paid a ticket than be on probation or even possibly jail time.”

She said the ordinance helps people trying to get back on their feet. She said her record from nine years ago still holds her back, even though she served her time.

“Yesterday I was turned down for a job,” she said. “And still every day I face being judged by my past. So I’m grateful that didn’t go on my record.”

But according to Berry, drug possession of any amount is grounds for terminating a lease.

The agency abides by federal housing guidelines, which state tenants and their guests cannot engage in drug activity.

Berry said residents acknowledge this by signing their lease.

“I’m surprised that they’re surprised by that,” Berry said.

So how many people could possibly lose their housing?

Between Sept. 26 and Nov. 9, 24 citations were issued in Davidson County.

Of those, 15 citations were issued on MDHA property as a result of drug complaints or search warrants.

Six citations were given during traffic stops, while three were issued for other reasons.

Metro Councilman Freddie O’Connell voted for the ordinance, and his district encompasses at least five MDHA properties.

He called the possibility of evictions disappointing.

“To me, this is one of those things where I would look at it on paper and say, ‘Are we doing our best as a city in how we treat people if we’re kicking them out of housing for simple possession?’ I would argue no,” O’Connell said.

Even before the ordinance, MDHA residents could be evicted for drug activity.

But O’Connell said the intent of Nashville’s law was to ease burdens, not create them.

“The law that we passed doesn’t reveal a new burden on anybody,” O’Connell said. “It reveals a place where MDHA is keeping an existing burden in place where we might look to lighten it there, too.”

O’Connell said he plans on discussing these policies and procedures with MDHA. If nothing can be changed, he said he plans on approaching U.S. Congressman Jim Cooper, D-TN.

The question at least one resident is asking is whether the potential consequences for the civil penalty are worse for people living public housing.

“I feel like I moved out here to better my life because I was having a hard time,” said one woman who received a citation. “And it’s actually somewhat made it harder because where I live.”

A spokeswoman for Metro police said officers are not targeting MDHA properties. She added that those receiving the Metro citations would likely have received a state citation prior to the change enacted by the Metro Council.

“A majority of the time, these officers are responding to drug complaints from residents,” wrote April Weatherly in an email.

It’s unclear if all 15 people cited on MDHA property actually live there. Documents suggest most of the instances stemmed from home searches, but MDHA will need to confirm the names of tenants.

Tenants can always appeal lease terminations. A judge will eventually decide if they are evicted.

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