By Katie Miller, Litigation Fellow, & Sandra Park, Staff Attorney, ACLU Women’s Rights Project
Across the country, a growing number of cities are adopting nuisance ordinances that impose fines and criminal penalties on landlords and tenants when the police are called too many times to the property. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, landlords may be fined if the police are called to the premises three or more times within 30 days. While the stated goal is to deter crime and recoup costs, these ordinances endanger domestic violence survivors, particularly women of color.
Property nuisance ordinances can take a variety of forms, but generally impose fines or other sanctions on building owners and tenants when the police are called to the premises a certain number of times, or where certain offenses are alleged to have occurred on the property. Under these ordinances, the only practical way for an owner to abate the "nuisance" and avoid a penalty is to evict the resident who called the police or whose home was the site of the alleged offense.
These ordinances present two very serious problems for women who experience domestic violence or stalking, two crimes that often occur in one’s home: They may prevent victims from calling the police when they are endangered by an abuser or stalker, and they may result in housing discrimination against victims of domestic violence. The ACLU of Washington raised both of these concerns when a nuisance ordinance was adopted in Seattle.
If a tenant knows that multiple calls to the police will lead to eviction, she may feel forced to remain silent to avoid homelessness. This means that a victim of domestic violence may not be able to seek police assistance when she faces abuse or needs to enforce a restraining order.
Take Laurie Grape: After two calls to the police for protection from her abusive ex-boyfriend, Grape was warned that a third call would result in eviction pursuant to the nuisance ordinance in East Rochester, N.Y. Although her ex-boyfriend continued to threaten her, Grape did not contact the police because she feared that she and her children would lose their home.
In situations where an alleged "nuisance" offense is related to an incident of domestic violence, landlords may choose to evict all the residents to avoid future incidents or police calls that could result in a fine. Yet, these evictions violate federal law. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has made it clear that tenants who are denied or evicted from housing because they have suffered domestic violence can file sex discrimination complaints with HUD under the federal Fair Housing Act.
Because these ordinances may disproportionately affect domestic violence survivors, most of whom are women, we are concerned that they deny women their right to housing. If you have been evicted or threatened with eviction because you experienced domestic violence, or have been discouraged from calling the police to report domestic violence, we want to hear from you: www.aclu.org/dvsurvey.