Dewakuku v. Martinez, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (2001)

Serena Dewakuku bought a house that was built by the Hopi Tribal Housing Authority through an assistance program that helps low-income Indian families. After she bought the house, Serena found that it had serious structural and design problems. She reported this to the housing authority, but it did nothing to fix the problems. Serena sued claiming that the home she had bought from her housing authority did not meet the standards of a federal law called the Indian Housing Act, which was created to make sure any subsidized housing was of good quality.

The court that heard Serena’s case agreed that the housing authority had violated the law and ordered it to fix the problems. The housing authority challenged this ruling and the case went back to court. This time, the appeals court threw her case out of court on a technicality: This court said that although the housing law said Ms. Dewakuku had rights, it didn’t explicitly say she could go to court if those rights were violated.
Ms. Dewakuku couldn’t go to court and she was stuck with a defective and badly built home. This court tells us that even if a housing authority violates the law, the people who buy shoddily built homes have no legal remedy in court. We may think we have rights because of certain laws, but we can’t necessarily enforce them.

For more information see our fact sheets on housing rights and racial justice.