For survivors of domestic violence, housing security and access to police assistance can be essential to living free from abuse. However, towns and cities across the country are increasingly passing local laws that punish landlords and tenants when crimes occur on a property, endangering victims’ housing and interfering with their ability to report crimes.
Nuisance ordinances – also called disorderly house ordinances or crime free ordinances – label a property as a nuisance when it is the site of a certain number of calls for police or alleged nuisance conduct (a category that can include assault, harassment, stalking, disorderly conduct, and many other kinds of behavior). Alarmingly, these laws usually apply regardless of whether a resident was a victim of the nuisance activity. Upon citation, property owners typically are instructed to “abate the nuisance” or face steep penalties. Many landlords respond by evicting the tenant (who can be the victim of the crime), refusing to renew their lease, or instructing tenants not to call 911.
While proponents of nuisance ordinances argue they are necessary to deter crime, in practice they undermine public safety and punish innocent people – especially vulnerable people who have fewer resources. Domestic violence victims often feel they must endure violence and threats without police intervention when calling the police will lead to homelessness. Nuisance ordinances have also been found to disproportionately impact and be disparately enforced against communities of color and persons with mental disabilities. Because these ordinances typically do not require that residents be told about a warning or citation, impacted people often have no opportunity to show that they were actually victims of the “nuisance conduct” and may not even know that a nuisance ordinance is at the root of their housing situation.
Nuisance ordinances give rise to violations of the First Amendment right to petition the government, due process guarantees, and federal and state prohibitions against housing discrimination. The ACLU works to address the harmful impact of nuisance ordinances through litigation and legislative advocacy.
IN THE COURTS: CASES
Somai v. Bedford (2020)
The American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project and ACLU of Ohio filed an amended complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, challenging a criminal activity nuisance ordinance in Bedford, Ohio, on behalf of Beverly Somai and the Fair Housing Center for Rights & Research. Bedford’s nuisance ordinance penalizes property owners when two or more perceived violations of any law, excluding traffic violations, occur near the home or involve a resident of the property within a one-year period. The city enforces the ordinance based on calls for police assistance — even if the resident is the victim of the crime or needs aid, such as Ms. Somai and her son. Bedford’s ordinance and its enforcement disproportionately impacts communities of color, low-income households, people with disabilities, and domestic violence survivors — the vast majority of whom are women.
Groton v. Pirro (2017)
The American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project, joined by the Empire Justice Center, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, National Housing Law Project, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, New York Civil Liberties Union, New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law filed an amicus brief in support of a landlord who triggered a local nuisance ordinance for calls made by tenants for police services and other circumstances that did not constitute criminal activity. The brief highlighted the serious due process and right to petition issues as well as the impact of ordinances on domestic violence survivors and people with disabilities.
Rosetta Watson v. Maplewood (2017)
The American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project and the ACLU of Missouri filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a domestic violence survivor, challenging the constitutionality of a municipal ordinance which authorizes officials to revoke a resident’s occupancy permit based on calls for police assistance with domestic violence or based on crimes occurring at the property.
The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Arizona, and private firm Aiken Schenk Hawkins & Ricciardi P.C., filed a federal lawsuit challenging an unconstitutional municipal ordinance that pressures landlords to evict a tenant if more than four calls to police are placed in 30 days or for crimes occurring at the property, even when the tenant is the victim.
The ACLU, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and the law firm of Pepper Hamilton LLP, filed a federal lawsuit challenging an unconstitutional municipal ordinance that punishes innocent tenants and their landlords for requesting police assistance. The challenge was filed on behalf of a domestic violence victim who faced eviction from her home after requesting police protection from an abusive ex-boyfriend.
Know Your Rights!
Know your rights! Victims of stalking, sexual assault or harassment, or intimate partner violence often bear the additional risks of housing instability, or policies that push them out of their homes. Learn more about housing discrimination faced by survivors of domestic violence and what can be done to fight these policies.
- ACLU, How Nuisance Ordinances and Crime-Free Leases Undermine Safety and Housing of Crime Victims
- Housing Discrimination and Domestic Violence
- La Discriminación en la Vivienda y la Violencia Doméstica
- Domestic Violence and Homelessness
- Violencia doméstica y carencia de vivienda
Legislative and Policy Advocacy
The ACLU advocates for the passage of legislation that would prevent housing discrimination against those who have experienced domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, and other forms of gender-based violence. That includes efforts to strengthen the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Fair Housing Act among other efforts.
State and Local Advocacy:
- ACLU and NYCLU, More Than A Nuisance: The Outsized Consequences of New York’s Nuisance Ordinances (Aug. 2018)
- ACLU, Joint Memorandum of Support for New York bill A.9056 (Lavine)
- ACLU of IA, Nuisance Ordinances Punish Crime Victims
- ACLU of PA, Support for House Bill 1796 Protection for Victims of Crime from Certain Municipal Ordinances (Jan. 13, 2014)
- ACLU of PA, Letter Opposing “Borough of Vandling Neighborhood Preservation and Disruptive Conduct and Nuisance Abatement Ordinance” (July 15, 2013)
- ACLU of IL, Crime-Free Housing and Nuisance Ordinances
- HUD, Application of Fair Housing Act Standards to the Enforcement of Local Nuisance and Crime-Free Housing Ordinances Against Victims of Domestic Violence, Other Crimes, and Others Who Require Police or Emergency Services (2016)
- ACLU Letter to HUD re: Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Assessment Tool, Docket No. FR-5173-N-02 (2014)
NEWS AND OTHER RESOURCES
- Victims’ Dilemma: 911 Calls Can Bring Eviction, The New York Times, August 16, 2013
- Shut Up or Get Out: PA City Punishes Domestic Violence Victims Who Call the Police, April 24, 2013
- Victory! Town Will No Longer Treat Domestic Violence Victims as Nuisance, Sept. 8, 2014
- Surprise! Get Assaulted, Call 911, Lose Your Home, Aug. 27, 2015
- I Was a Domestic Violence Victim. My Town Wanted Me Evicted for Calling 911, Sept. 11, 2015
- With Nuisance Laws, Has ‘Serve and Protect’ Turned Into ‘Silence and Evict’?, March 25, 2016
- For Low-Income Victims, Nuisance Laws Force Ultimatum: Silence Or Eviction, by Pam Fessler, NPR, June 29, 2016
- In a Town Near You, People Are Being Evicted From Their Homes Because They Called the Police for Help, August 17, 2016
- More Than A Nuisance: The Outsized Consequences of New York’s Nuisance Ordinances, 2018
- Stopping Evictions Caused by Nuisance Ordinances, 2017
- Safe Homes, Safe Communities: A Guide for Local Leaders on Domestic Violence and Fair Housing, 2015
- SILENCED: How Nuisance Ordinances Punish Crime Victims in New York, 2015
- Who Is A Nuisance? by Joseph Mead, et al., Urban Publications, 2017
- Unpolicing the Urban Poor: Consequences of Third-Party Policing for Inner-City Women by Matthew Desmond and Nicol Valdez, 78 Am. Soc. Rev. 117, 2012
- Denying Access to Justice: The Cost of Applying Chronic Nuisance Laws to Domestic Violence by Cari Fais, Note, 108 Colum. L. Rev. 1181, 2008
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