One Strike” Public Housing Policy Essay

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The “One Strike and You’re Out” initiative is a federal policy to fight crime in public housing, signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in March 1996, as part of the Housing Opportunity Program Extension Act of 1996. The statutory provisions of the measure allow Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) to screen applicants for public housing more carefully with regard to their current or prior criminal history and to evict tenants whose behavior, on or off public housing premises, threatens the safety or well-being of other public housing residents. Arrest and conviction are not necessary for PHAs to deny applications for admission or to implement evictions, and the offending party need not be the individual whose name appears on the application or lease. Instead, One Strike holds the entire household responsible for the behavior of each individual member along with the behavior of that member’s guests. One Strike imposes on lessees the obligation to ensure that neither they themselves, nor anyone living with them in the household, nor any of their guests or household members’ guests, nor any other person “under their control” will engage in illegal drug-related activities or other criminal behavior. Although the primary targets of the One Strike initiative are gangs, drug dealers, and other violent offenders, the law has had unintended harmful outcomes for battered women living in public housing.

Two provisions of the One Strike law in particular are problematic for women public housing residents currently or formerly involved in abusive intimate relationships: (1) the requirement that the lessee, 75% of whom are women, assume an affirmative responsibility for the law-abiding behavior of everyone in her household, including guests and others under her control, and (2) the provision allowing PHAs to deny admission to or evict individuals who have engaged in criminal activity, especially drug-related criminal activity, on or off public housing premises, regardless of whether or not they have arrest or conviction records for these activities. For example, a woman may take up residence in public housing with her children in order to escape an abusive intimate partner. Even though she may do nothing illegal or even disruptive, if one of her children commits a crime (e.g., sells drugs, participates in gang activity), she faces eviction and potential homelessness under the One Strike statute as it was written. Similarly, under One Strike an abusive partner could cause a woman to be evicted from public housing if that partner uses illegal drugs or abuses alcohol on the premises or in any way interferes with the health and safety of other residents, even if the partner is only visiting and does not reside with the woman. Given the coercive control in which abusers engage, it is conceivable, too, that some who are aware of these One Strike provisions could deliberately engage in wrongful behavior in order to get the women evicted. Some abuse victims are coerced into committing crimes (e.g., selling drugs, prostituting themselves, passing bad checks) by their abusers and end up with criminal records as a result. Such a woman who later tries to escape the abusive partner could find that her application for public housing was denied because One Strike mandates that the criminal records maintained by police departments, other law enforcement agencies, and the National Crime Information Center be made available to PHAs as they review applications.

In light of these problems, domestic violence advocates sought revisions to public housing laws, and specifically, the One Strike provisions. Consequently, in the 2005 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, Congress included several provisions to protect intimate partner violence victims from discrimination in public housing. For instance, PHAs may not deny the applications of victims of domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking if the applicant otherwise qualifies for housing or housing assistance. In addition, incidents of actual or threatened domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking can no longer be considered a violation of a victim’s lease and cannot be used as grounds for termination of the victim’s lease. Although significant, these amendments address only some of the problems posed by One Strike for abuse victims.


  1. DeKeseredy, W. S., Alvi, S., Schwartz, M. D., & Perry, B. (1999). Violence against and the harassment of women in Canadian public housing: An exploratory study. Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 36, 499–516.
  2. Renzetti, C. M. (2001). “One strike and you’re out”: Implications of a federal crime control policy for battered women. Violence Against Women, 7, 685–698.
  3. Renzetti, C. M., & Maier, S. L. (2002). “Private” crime in public housing: Violent victimization, fear of crime, and social isolation among women public housing residents. Women’s Health and Urban Life, 1, 46–65.

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