Under local laws, 911 calls turn domestic abuse victims into ‘nuisances’

Nuisance ordinances, designed to curb illegal activity in rental properties, punish survivors of violence, critics say

Lakisha Briggs, a victim of domestic violence who faced eviction from her rental property last year, in front of her former home in Norristown, Pennsylvania, in 2013.
Jessica Kourkounis / The New York Times / Redux

When Lakisha Briggs’ ex-boyfriend forced his way into her home in June 2012, she faced an impossible dilemma. Although the man had physically assaulted her on several occasions, Briggs knew that if she called the police for help, she and her 3-year-old daughter would likely be thrown out of their subsidized apartment.

Briggs, a 34-year-old mother residing in Norristown, Pennsylvania, found herself in this situation as the result of a city ordinance aimed at reducing “disorderly behavior” in rental housing. The ordinance stipulated that tenants who made three 911 calls in four months could be evicted. Briggs had already received three strikes as the result of emergency calls made during previous attacks by her ex, and the month before the incident, city officials had notified her that further calls would result in her removal from her apartment.

In that event, Briggs would likely lose not only her apartment but her Section 8 voucher, which public-housing authorities typically revoke if a tenant is evicted. Terrified, Briggs instructed family members not to call police under any circumstances. She persisted even when her ex-boyfriend attacked her again, breaking an ashtray against her head and stabbing her in the neck with one of its shards. A neighbor ultimately called 911, and an unconscious Briggs was airlifted to the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center for emergency care.

Three days later, her landlord began eviction proceedings against her under the direction of the city, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on her behalf in April 2013. The rights group argued that the town had violated Briggs’ First Amendment rights to petition law enforcement, as well as the federal Violence Against Women Act, which grants protections to victims of violence living in federally subsidized housing.

Ultimately, Briggs’ eviction was averted and Norristown settled the suit, agreeing in September to repeal the ordinance and pay Briggs $495,000 in compensation and attorneys’ fees. But the case brought to light an issue that is far from unique to Norristown. Nuisance ordinances — also referred to as “crime-free housing” ordinances — became an increasingly prevalent feature of local law-enforcement efforts during the past two decades. According to the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, which tracks their passage, 2,000 local governments in 44 states now have such laws in place — a number that the organization says has accelerated during the past five years.

Minneapolis’ Sumner-Olson housing project in 2012. Under nuisance and crime-free ordinances, renters are in danger of losing publicly subsidized housing in buildings like these if they make more than three emergency calls.
Brian Peterson / Minneapolis Star Tribune / ZUMAPRESS.com / Alamy

Proponents of nuisance ordinances contend that they cut down on repeated misconduct at residential properties and hold absentee landlords responsible for illegal activities on their premises. Housing and anti-violence advocates, however, say there’s a gap in this logic: Once police are called, many ordinances penalize tenants regardless of whether they were the victim or the perpetrator of a crime.

Under the ordinances, tenants can also face eviction even if they did not themselves dial 911. “Whether a neighbor calls or whoever calls, it’s the same impact,” explains Terri Hamrick, president and CEO of the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania-based domestic violence shelter Survivors, Inc. Hamrick says that following Lakisha Briggs’ case, she has encountered at least four more cases of survivors who have come to her shelter after being threatened with eviction. Advocates fear that nuisance ordinances also jeopardize the housing rights of people with mental illnesses and other groups likely to find themselves in frequent contact with police. 

Briggs’ case brought national attention to the previously obscure issue of nuisance ordinances, and efforts to combat their harmful impact have gained momentum in its wake. After Briggs and the ACLU filed suit against Norristown, the Department of Housing and Urban Development took the rare step of bringing its own complaint against the city for an alleged violation of the federal Fair Housing Act. In October, Pennsylvania passed a law prohibiting local governments from penalizing residents for calling 911 in cases of domestic violence or other emergencies.

Briggs, who has since been able to obtain alternate housing in Norristown and an order of protection against her ex-boyfriend, says she is heartened by these changes. “I am very pleased that Norristown repealed the nuisance ordinance,” she wrote in an email. “I am even more pleased that our government understands how important it is to protect victims of domestic violence from being doubly victimized for seeking help.”

Now, the ACLU, the Shriver Center and several other legal and advocacy organizations have launched a national campaign called I Am Not a Nuisance, aimed at raising awareness of the collateral damage caused by such ordinances and pressuring more states and municipalities to add additional protections for victims. Ultimately, some advocates believe, the nuisance laws stem from a flawed view of crime control and should be repealed entirely.

‘While African-American men are locked up, African-American women are locked out.’

Matthew Desmond

assistant professor, Harvard University

Nuisance ordinances are at the center of a paradigm that Matthew Desmond, an assistant professor of sociology at Harvard, calls “third-party policing.” In recent decades, he explains, law enforcement has sought increasingly to involve third parties such as landlords and local business owners in crime-control efforts — a trend that he believes has gone hand in hand with the growth of tough-on-crime policies and beefed-up policing. Says Desmond, “This is a new way of doing law enforcement.”

Nuisance ordinances build on the crime-free housing programs that became popular among local police departments in the 90s, which offer landlords resources and trainings on how to secure their properties. Proponents say that they arose from a set of simple observations: Certain rental properties were becoming hubs for illegal activities because tenants lacked investment in them, and owners who lived off premises were allowing problematic behaviors to continue unabated. First introduced in Mesa, Arizona, in 1992, crime-free-housing programs were described at the time as an attempt to reduce the crime rate by dealing with “problem tenants.” “The whole idea behind the program is to identify the criminal element and get them to move on to somewhere else,” says Carl Leoni, coordinator of a crime-free-housing program in DeKalb, Illinois.

Crime-free ordinances go a step further, requiring landlords to “abate” the nuisance posed by certain tenants under penalty of fines, or even the revocation of their rental licenses. Sandra Park, a senior attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, believes that in recent years, a perceived link between renters and criminality has made nuisance ordinances attractive among a growing number of local lawmakers, as well as civic groups such as homeowners’ associations. She attributes a wave of new ordinances to the ongoing consequences of the 2008 economic crisis, including the migration of tenants in search of affordable housing out of expensive urban centers and into residential communities previously dominated by homeowners.

Given that renters are more likely than homeowners to have low incomes and be members of racial minority groups, housing advocates say the passage of nuisance ordinances may pave the way for racial and socio-economic discrimination. The ordinances often seem to be “connected to ideas of who may be causing criminal issues in the community,” says Park. “We’re concerned about how peoples’ ideas of safety can be shaped by bias.”

Indeed, research suggests that once enacted, nuisance ordinances may be enforced unevenly, with sanctions falling most heavily on African-American neighborhoods and victims of domestic violence. In a 2012 study published in the American Sociological Review, Harvard’s Desmond and co-author Nicole Valdez compiled data on every nuisance citation distributed in Milwaukee over a two-year period. The study, which represented the first comprehensive examination of a nuisance ordinance’s application, found that once a call to police had occurred, a property was 3.5 times more likely to receive a nuisance citation if it was located in a black neighborhood as opposed to a white neighborhood. Domestic violence, meanwhile, accounted for an outsize proportion of nuisance citations, representing 3.8 percent of all 911 calls but 15.7 percent of all citations.

In most such cases, the study found, property owners “abated” nuisances by moving forward with an eviction. “We are evicting Sheila M., the caller for numerous help from police,” one landlord quoted in the study wrote to the Minneapolis Police Department after being asked to submit a plan for nuisance abatement. “She has been beaten by her ‘man’ who kicks in doors and goes to jail for 1 or 2 days. … We suggested she obtain a gun and kill him in self-defense, but evidently she hasn’t. Therefore, we are evicting her.”

Minneapolis has since altered its nuisance ordinance to explicitly exempt victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. But Desmond believes that his findings could help to explain trends that extend beyond one city — in particular, alarming rates of eviction among African-American women, who in some poor neighborhoods are evicted at almost twice the rate of African-American men. The spate of evictions among low-income black women is becoming the female equivalent of soaring rates of incarceration among black men, says Desmond: “While African-American men are locked up, African-American women are locked out.”

‘We’ve spent so many years [encouraging] victims to call for help ... I feel like these ordinances really set us back 30 years.’

Gwyn Kaitis

Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network

These trends are troubling, given that evictions are currently on the rise nationwide, due to what former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan termed “the worst rental affordability crisis that this country has known.” Meanwhile, domestic violence is already among the leading causes of homelessness, with nearly 40 percent of victims becoming homeless at some point in their lives. Cutting this Gordian knot, many advocates argue, requires addressing the harm produced by nuisance ordinances.

But Becky Noel, executive director of the International Crime Free Association, denies any link between crime-free-housing programs and the eviction of domestic violence survivors. Proponents of the programs “certainly are not advocating for the victim to be evicted,” says Noel. Her association, which launched the original crime-free housing program in Arizona, provides resources and certification to municipalities wishing to start their own programs — including, she says, training on housing laws protecting domestic-violence victims. “The crime-free program is getting blamed, but we have nothing to do with it,” she says. “It’s a problem with ignorance on the part of managers and property companies.”

Many municipalities stress, likewise, that they have policies in place to protect victims. In DeKalb, the city’s records show that emergency calls related to domestic battery represented nearly a quarter of the 411 cases of “nuisances” reviewed by the city since its crime-free ordinance took effect in 2013. But Leoni, the program’s coordinator, insists that none of these cases were resolved through evictions. “We teach our landlords that it’s illegal to evict the victim of domestic violence,” says Leoni. Instead, landlords are encouraged to pursue means such as petitioning for a no-trespassing order on the perpetrator.

Many advocates say these measures can still backfire, however. For example, emergency responders might fail to recognize a 911 call as domestic violence and instead denote it as a noise complaint.

Gwyn Kaitis, director of the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network’s domestic-violence helpline, also believes that nuisance ordinances have had a chilling effect on survivors, discouraging them from dialing 911. When survivors of recent incidents of domestic violence call her helpline, she says, they often tell her that they can’t call the police because they are above all fearful of losing their housing. “We’ve spent so many years [encouraging] victims to call for help when incidents occur, trying to get them report it,” she says. “I feel like these ordinances really set us back 30 years on that front.”

Following the success in enacting additional protections in Pennsylvania, New York is on the brink of passing a similar law, and advocates hope more states and municipalities will follow suit.  

Sara Rose, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, calls these efforts a “step in the right direction,” but believes there are still bigger questions at stake. Fundamentally, she believes, ordinances that allow tenants to be evicted without court proceedings are a violation of due process. “You shouldn’t have tenants losing their homes for engaging in behavior that a homeowner wouldn’t lose their homes for,” she says. “But municipalities have kind of seized on it as a way to get rid of ‘undesirables.’ ”

And even with increased protections for victims of domestic violence, the ACLU and anti-violence groups face an uphill battle. Thanks to Pennsylvania’s new law, domestic-violence survivors or other crime victims will have recourse, if they are sanctioned through local nuisance ordinances. But when faced with eviction, legal or not, many survivors are overwhelmed by the situation and simply pack up and leave.

Lakisha Briggs is an exception. By fighting her eviction, she was able to remain in Norristown and hang on to her Section 8 voucher. Briggs understands that it’s no small feat for survivors, already beset by fears for their physical safety, to challenge landlords and local authorities. “It almost feels like David and Goliath,” she explains. “You feel like ‘How can I win this? Which way do I turn? Who can I trust?’ ” But given her own victory, she says, “I would tell them to stand up and fight back.”

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