New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 17, 2013
NORRISTOWN, Pa. » The police had warned Lakisha Briggs: one more altercation at her rented row house here, one more call to 911, and they would force her landlord to evict her.
They could do so under the town's "nuisance property" ordinance, a law intended to protect neighborhoods from seriously disruptive households. Officials can invoke the measure and pressure landlords to act if the police have been called to a rental home three times within four months.
So she faced a fearful dilemma, Briggs recalled, when her volatile boyfriend showed up last summer, fresh out of a jail stint for their previous fight, and demanded to move in.
"I had no choice but to let him stay," said Briggs, 34, a certified nursing assistant, even though, she said in an interview, she worried about the safety of her 3-year-old daughter as well as her own.
"If I called the police to get him out of my house, I'd get evicted," she said. "If I physically tried to remove him, somebody would call 911 and I'd be evicted."
Over the last 25 years, in a trend still growing, hundreds of cities and towns across the country have adopted nuisance property or "crime-free housing" ordinances. Putting responsibility on landlords to weed out drug dealers and disruptive tenants, the laws aim to save neighborhoods from blight as well as ease burdens on the police.
But the laws are sometimes forcing victims, especially women facing domestic violence, to choose between calling the police and holding on to their homes, according to legal aid groups and experts on housing and the poor.
"These laws threaten citizens' fundamental right to call on the police for help," said Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Harvard.
In a study of citations issued to landlords in Milwaukee, conducted with Nicol Valdez of Columbia University, Desmond found that domestic violence was involved in nearly one-third of the cases and that rentals in largely black areas were disproportionately targeted.
Legal experts say the laws can give tenants the lasting stain of an eviction record without due process.
In a federal lawsuit being watched by legal aid groups elsewhere, Briggs has challenged the Norristown ordinance as unconstitutional.
She did so after her fears were realized.
In June 2012, days after her ex-boyfriend, Wilbert Bennett, moved into her house in this struggling town northwest of Philadelphia, he started another drunken, late-night argument. Then came his most violent attack yet — an assault with a broken ashtray that left a gash on her head and a 4-inch stab wound in her neck.
Before she passed out, Briggs begged her neighbor not to call 911 because of the eviction threat, according to the suit, which is being argued by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The neighbor called anyway. Briggs was taken by helicopter to Philadelphia for emergency treatment. Bennett is now serving a sentence of one to two years for aggravated assault.
And Norristown officials instructed her landlord to evict her within 10 days or lose his rental license.
"I was afraid I'd lose my house, my job and, what's next, my daughter?" Briggs recalled.
A legal aid lawyer put her in touch with the ACLU, and the city backed away from the eviction demand. Briggs moved anyway, to a location she hopes Bennett will not discover when he is released.
Responding to the lawsuit, Norristown officials stressed that they had policies to protect victims of domestic abuse. They said Briggs had failed to comply with an instruction to obtain protection orders against Bennett and also against her troubled older daughter, then 19, with whom she had repeated arguments. The police had been called to her home 10 times in the first five months of 2012 and said they had seen no evidence of physical injury.
The suit "fails to take into consideration the health, safety and welfare of all neighbors who live in proximity to a disorderly house," the town said.
This kind of ordinance began to spread in the 1980s as communities sought to banish drug centers. They continued to proliferate as large cities like Phoenix and Dallas, and suburban towns like Norristown also sought to halt the flight of residents from crumbling neighborhoods.
Because rental properties account for a large share of 911 calls, more cities began to license landlords and press them to control disruptive tenants, said Michael Buerger, professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
The impetus was understandable, he said, as cities like Minneapolis, where he did research, saw good people driven out by the uncivil behavior of a few.
"It's a form of mission creep, I suspect," Buerger said, of the negative consequences now gaining attention. "I don't think anyone believes that landlords should be able to ignore a crack house. But after three visits for disorderly conduct - it's less clear."
Evicting disruptive tenants may help one block but shuffles the problem elsewhere, note advocates for the poor.
"I really doubt this policy ends up saving the city money," said April A. Hartman, a lawyer with Legal Action of Wisconsin. "Milwaukee spends a significant amount of money dealing with the consequences of homelessness and housing instability."
Potentially unfair consequences are not confined to battered women.
William Zarnoth, 62, a bartender in Milwaukee, said he worked late and was not involved in disputes between his roommates and a downstairs neighbor that led to 911 calls.
"I wasn't named in any of the police reports," he said. But he was ejected with the others in June. He is living in an $80-a-week room and has been turned down for apartments because of the eviction record.
"Now I'm trying to get my name cleared so I can rent a place where I can cook," Zarnoth said.
More than 100 municipalities in Illinois have adopted nuisance property or crime-free property ordinances, said Emily Werth, a lawyer with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago and author of a new report on the effects.
Gwen Kaitis, director of the Illinois Domestic Violence Helpline, said her group received several calls a month from women facing a choice between safety and housing. On a recent day, she said, a woman with five children called to say that her boyfriend had choked her and she was trying to end their relationship, but that her landlord had told her that if the police are called one more time, he would evict her.
In Minnesota and, after a recent revision, Milwaukee, laws specify that domestic violence cannot be grounds for eviction. But counselors for battered women warn that, as happened with Briggs, the police do not always perceive the abusive aspects of conflicts and the victims - often scared, financially vulnerable and in emotional knots - may not speak up.
Many critics of the laws call them "fundamentally flawed," in the words of Sandra S. Park, a lawyer with the ACLU who is helping to represent Briggs.
The critics, including landlords who say they are caught in the middle, argue that the police, not landlords, should deal with criminal activity and severe disorderly behavior.
"The problem with these ordinances is that they turn victims of crime who are pleading for emergency assistance into 'nuisances' in the eyes of the city," Park said. "They limit people's ability to seek help from police and punish victims for criminal activity committed against them."