The second time that Laurie Grape called the police during an attack by her then-boyfriend, they told her that a third call would get her evicted. Under a local law in East Rochester, New York, three police responses to the same property within a 12-month period were once grounds for a person to be kicked out of her home. The next time her ex-boyfriend attacked her, Laurie decided to stay silent rather than risk eviction.
Laurie, however, didn’t stay silent for long. In 2010, Grape and another domestic violence survivor settled a lawsuit against East Rochester, resulting in the village changing its so-called “nuisance abatement” law. Unfortunately, similarly harmful ordinances continue to be in force across the state of New York.
Today, a coalition of rights groups called on 11 of these municipalities to repeal their nuisance laws. The New York Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, the Empire Justice Center, and the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence sent letters emphasizing that repeal is necessary because these ordinances violate people’s constitutional and civil rights and undermine community safety.
In June 2017, a New York appellate court ruled for the first time on the constitutionality of these laws. The court struck down the Village of Groton’s nuisance abatement law because it infringed on the First Amendment right to petition the government by punishing tenants for calling the police for help or to report a crime. The court agreed with our amicus brief in the case, emphasizing the chilling effect that such laws can have on people in need of emergency assistance, with domestic violence victims particularly impacted. Similar laws are in effect in at least 35 states. The ACLU has taken them on in more than a dozen, advocating against them in state and local legislatures and successfully challenging them in Arizona, California, and Pennsylvania.
Many of the nuisance ordinances we are targeting — those in Babylon, Cheektowaga, Greece, New Hartford, Rochester, Rome, Schenectady, Troy, Utica, Village of Hempstead, and Yonkers — put victims of crimes at risk of losing housing. The vast majority make no distinction between nuisance behaviors committed by tenants and crimes committed against tenants. Most of the laws also do not require convictions, arrests, or for tenants to be given any notice for the nuisance law to be triggered. That means municipalities can act based on little to no evidence of a crime.
These nuisance ordinances violate free speech, due process, equal protection, and fair housing guarantees. But they aren’t just illegal, they’re bad policy. While cities might intend to prevent crime with these laws, the reality is that these ordinances result in housing instability for already vulnerable individuals and reduce trust between communities and law enforcement.
When tenants are told that calling the police could result in their eviction, they stop reporting crimes or dangerous conditions, making police officers’ jobs more difficult. And nuisance ordinances are not tailored to prevent crime because they often punish landlords and tenants regardless of whether a given crime was committed by someone connected to the property where it took place.
In 2015, the ACLU and the Social Science Resource Council published a report documenting the harms of some of these laws in New York. That report found that in Fulton and Binghamton, properties were frequently designated as nuisances due to domestic violence. In fact, domestic violence made up nearly half of the incidents included in nuisance enforcement warnings issued by the Fulton police.
People experiencing intimate partner violence, as well as anyone else who requires police assistance, should not have to choose between personal security and losing their home.
One of the stories highlighted in that report involved a tenant in Binghamton who was the victim of repeated domestic violence. Police were called by a neighbor to intervene when her boyfriend threw her to the ground and began to choke her and again when he returned to the property in violation of a restraining order. Both incidents were cited as “nuisance conduct” under the city’s ordinance. The landlord responded to the city’s warning letter about these disturbances by promising to evict the tenant.
These laws can also be devastating for people with mental or physical disabilities who may need to access emergency assistance more frequently than others. In 2014, for example, the Village of Groton classified police assistance to a person engaging in self-harm, who had a known history of suicide attempts, as a “general disturbance.” That incident helped get the tenant’s building labeled a “nuisance property.” The law has since been invalidated.
People experiencing intimate partner violence, as well as anyone else who requires police assistance, should not have to choose between personal security and losing their home. Keeping these laws on the books can undermine public safety because they create a perverse incentive not to report crime or safety issues to the police.
Our cities, towns, and villages should prioritize protecting communities and preserving housing rights. And they should stop wasting resources on enforcing these unjust laws.