On one side of the street, the suspected drug dealers perched on the scarred, old cruiser, narrowed their eyes and just stared.
On the other side, Columbia Housing Authority safety officer Dearl Logan turned his head out his car window and stared back.
Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. The two sides eventually broke eye contact and parted ways.
If he had seen them dealing, Logan could have had them arrested. Instead, he figures they just took their business elsewhere. This dilemma is hardly uncommon in some of Columbia’s public housing complexes, Logan said.
For years, the housing authority has been vexed by drug dealers and thieves who tiptoe around its trespass rules, Logan said. Security officials keep a list of more than 700 trespass policy violators, all of whom are barred from housing authority property. But many of them return, again and again, to public streets outside authority apartments, where trespassing cannot be enforced.
“Right now, we control the property, but the drug dealers know to go on the streets,” Logan said. “All we can do is watch them and hope if we watch them long enough they’ll go somewhere else.”
On Tuesday night, housing authority commissioners discussed a potential solution: Make the streets, like the homes and yards, private property.
Discussion began after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June upheld a similar no-trespassing policy adopted in 1997 by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority in Richmond, Va. The appellant in the case, Kevin Hicks, had argued that the private status of the streets violated his civil rights.
Columbia Housing Authority Executive Director Doris Chiles hopes eventually to adopt a policy similar to the sometimes-contentious Richmond program.
Richmond authority’s spokeswoman Valena Dixon said the policy has been very effective in driving crime away from Richmond public housing.
It could be months before the city of Columbia conveys any streets to the housing authority, although Chiles hopes to start the process with a resolution at the housing authority’s Oct. 21 commission meeting.
“It’s another enforcement tool for us,” Chiles said.
If the authority proceeds, it likely would have to pay for its own street repair and maintenance because of stipulations in the property transfer, City Attorney Fred Boeckmann said. City departments also would be able to nitpick the plan for potential problems.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the housing authority board considered privatizing Elleta Boulevard first, which Boeckmann said could be complicated because it is the sole access road to a nearby city park. The authority also wants to privatize Trinity Place, Lincoln and Unity drives and portions of LaSalle Place and Allen Street.