In a Town Near You, People Are Being Evicted From Their Homes Because They Called the Police for Help

In cities and towns across the country, little-known local laws penalize calls to the police and can get people kicked out of their homes. These laws create a perverted point system where every 911 call or report of criminal activity at a rental property counts as a strike against renters and their landlords. And it doesn’t matter whether people called the police for help or that they were the victim of the crime.

These laws go by different names: nuisance ordinances, crime-free ordinances, disorderly behavior ordinances. But they all do one thing: They tell landlords that unless they punish tenants for calling 911 or when a crime occurs in their homes, they will face steep fines, loss of rental permits, or property closure. Not surprisingly, landlords typically “abate” the “nuisance” by evicting the tenant and everyone in the home without any consideration of the circumstances that led to the call.

Here are a few examples:

  • In Norristown, Pennsylvania, a tenant’s boyfriend physically assaulted her, and she called 911. The police arrested her boyfriend but told her that if she made more calls to the police, she would be evicted. After this, the tenant was terrified to call the police despite her boyfriend’s escalating violence. When he came back again and stabbed her in the neck, her neighbors called the police and she was airlifted to the hospital. The city pressured her landlord to evict, and days later, she received an eviction notice.
  • In Binghamton, New York, a tenant was a victim of a home invasion and burglary, and his neighbor called the police. The tenant told the police that he didn’t know his assailants or why he was targeted. But the city cited the landlord, and the landlord assured city officials that all tenants in the building had been or would be evicted.  
  • In Berlin, New Hampshire, police responded to the home of a tenant who had attempted suicide and brought her to the hospital. Hospital staff later informed the police that the tenant had become disorderly, and the police placed her in protective custody. Despite the apparent mental disability, the officers issued the tenant a citation under the local nuisance ordinance.
  • In Blakely, Pennsylvania, a neighbor called the police and accused a tenant of leaving her child unattended on the porch of the home. The Department of Children and Youth Services deemed the allegation unfounded, but the call to the police was still counted as a strike against the mother under the local ordinance.
  • In Lancaster, California, according to the Department of Justice, the chronic nuisance ordinance was used in a racially discriminatory manner by the city to incentivize landlords to evict African-American tenants.

The enforcement of these laws against domestic violence survivors, crime victims, people living with disabilities, and people of color violates our sense of basic fairness and decency; it’s also incredibly harmful, unproductive, and often unlawful. 

That’s why over 29 United States Senators today sent a letter to Julian Castro, secretary  of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, urging his department to issue written guidance to cities and landlords about these ordinances in order to ensure that everyone has access to emergency services without fear of retaliation. 

The senators noted that these local laws have a disproportionate impact on victims of domestic violence by exacerbating housing insecurities that are unique to survivors — because securing and maintaining adequate housing is often challenging — and further increasing victims’ likelihood of becoming homeless. Additionally, while some nuisance ordinances are supposed to address crime in a community, they often undermine public safety by deterring crime victims and their neighbors from calling the police, emboldening the perpetrators.

The senators’ letter to HUD also asserted that such ordinances may violate federal laws, and it encouraged the department to issue guidance to municipalities. Such guidance should explain the federal protections — the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Violence Against Women Act — that apply when these ordinances are enforced against domestic violence survivors, people with disabilities, and communities of color.

No one should have to choose between being safe or being homeless. Yet that’s exactly what nuisance, crime-free, or disorderly behavior laws do when they penalize tenants who make 911 calls or are crime victims. HUD has already taken some important steps to address the discriminatory effects of these ordinances.

We’re glad that members of the U.S. Senate are urging them to keep up the good work — and to do more. 

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Anonymous

This is very flawed reporting of an important issue. They didn't mention the woman from Norristown successfully sued the city. As a result they repealed the "nuisance" law, and enacted a state law preventing the practice statewide. The law in Lancaster was also overturned as a result of bad press related to multiple lawsuits. Obviously direct civil action is effective so why not mention that?

Anonymous

Because successful civil action does not erase the fact that these people were evicted from their homes for seeking help. It doesn't change the fact that when they were at perhaps their most vulnerable, they were treated like a nuisance rather than a victim. They still had to find a place to live and store their stuff. Some may not have been able to.

The amount of mental and emotional stress that puts on a person does not go away because they won a court case. In fact, court cases often add to already stressful situations as the person filing now has to defend their position (hopefully with the help of a good lawyer, if they can afford one or find one that will only collect if they win). Some find the added stress too much to handle and never file a case.

Anonymous

Why do you feel the need to erase this issue?

It is still going on; one person winning doesn't mean the bullying stops.

Anonymous

well the fact that it happened and is happening elsewhere is the real issue here

Anonymous

The fact she got lucky with her lawsuit doesn't change the fact that the Norristown officials did what they did and her life was turned upside down. It doesn't change the fact that this is a huge problem in many communities in the USA.

Anonymous

You guy's ALL mist the OPs point by a country mile. He's not trying to erase anything & I'm not sure where you even got that idea from. He's saying lawsuits work. That's not erasing the problem that's solving the problem. One law suit absolutely did fix the problem for an entire state, that's his point, we need more. More lawsuits WILL solve the problem.

Eric K.

Sorry, but your reply is inaccurate (using your logic), failing to "mention" that the eviction should not have occurred in the first place - and failing to "mention" the costs in time and dollars, not to mention taxing an overburdened court system, of having to find a lawyer to take the case and then prosecute the case (successfully as you noted), and before that find a new place to live plus deposits, fees, etc. associated with moving. You're quite correct that SOME of these laws have been overturned or gotten better guidelines for prosecution - but the underlying fact remains, in many cases, the eviction should not have happened at all.
Eric K. (because I am never anonymous)

Anonymous

Sorry Eric K, but you completely missed the point like everyone else. The point is that lawsuits work. Period. A lawyer can always be found to fight these laws, because it's insanely good for their reputation. And "failing" to acknowledge that these people fought, and won against, these laws serves no purpose but emotional manipulation. The fact is, it's a no-brainer to all of us here that these people shouldn't have been evicted, but it doesn't matter because it already happened, and nothing at all can change that at this point. But falling to mention that they fought, AND WON, is a far larger folly. On their states, this is no longer am issue because they rose up and fought. That's a goddamn important detail to omit.

Anonymous because I simply don't give a shit

Anonymous

I was threatened by local police for calling the police when a nutty neighbor assaulted my handicapped sister. I immediately told them that if they dare try to evict us I would have the ACLU down their throats before they could sign the papers. I never heard any more threats.

Anonymous

I got a donation with your name on it that says that's a good option to have.

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