SECRETARY of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp is right. Public-housing projects have to be cleansed of drug dealing if they are ever to become neighborhoods families can take pride in. Mr. Kemp's step of making it easier for housing managers to evict people involved with drugs is sensible, if controversial. Present department rules present a bureaucratic roadblock to quick evictions. Those rules will be waived when people are found buying, selling, or using drugs.
The secretary is probably correct in saying that most public-housing residents, harassed by the drug trade, will welcome this step.
But that, in itself, can't brush aside concerns about due process and fairness in applying the eviction penalty. Tenants have a right to fully present their side of the issue. Even with HUD's waiver of the old eviction procedures, Kemp assures us, this right will be protected: Local laws demanding due process in eviction proceedings will still apply. His assurance will bear careful monitoring.
Another concern of those disturbed by HUD's action is the risk of punishing the innocent. If a whole family is thrown out because of one member's indiscretion, what of the children made homeless?
Kemp promises that each case will be considered individually to prevent miscarriages of justice. Presumably, the penalty for a teenage boy's use of cocaine will not be borne by toddler siblings and a working mother. But heart-rending decisions will be nearly unavoidable.
The secretary is determined to make the waiver of the eviction rules - first granted in the case of an Alexandria, Va., housing project where a police officer had been murdered - available to any public-housing manager who requests it. He is also committed to helping projects around the country duplicate the kind of tough drug-enforcement program being used by Chicago's Housing Authority.
Hand in hand with toughness and tighter security must come a nurturing of cooperation and neighborliness. Residents have to be brought together not only to fight drugs, but to improve services like child care, provide recreation for youngsters, and to paint, plant, and scrub. These endeavors, as much as anything, will make their communities inhospitable to dealers and junkies.
Federal help in the form of dollars, to back up Kemp's welcome professions of concern, will be crucial in this overall effort to clean up the nation's housing projects.