Since the 1980s, cities across America have created nuisance and crime-free ordinances as a means of decreasing illegal and dangerous activities from taking place in rental properties. However, as these policies have evolved, they’ve raised questions about the impacts they have on some of the most vulnerable people and about whether they comply with the Fair Housing Act.
Nuisance and crime-free ordinances encourage and, in some cases, require landlords to evict tenants who engage in a broad range of activities considered to be a nuisance or associated with criminal activity. Activities that can be defined as being a nuisance can range from having garbage on the property to being arrested regardless of whether the incident led to a conviction. These types of policies target immigrants, women and people of color and lead to housing insecurity.
"Activities that can be defined as being a nuisance can range from having garbage on the property to being arrested regardless of whether the incident led to a conviction. These types of policies target immigrants, women and people of color and lead to housing insecurity."
These policies have negative impacts on the safety and wellbeing of women generally and African American women specifically who experience domestic violence. Because the ordinances do not provide exceptions to emergency service calls made by victims of domestic abuse, the women experiencing domestic violence often must make a choice between seeking safety away from their abusers or remaining housed. The case of Lakisha Briggs of Norristown, Pennsylvania, shows the impact these ordinances have on domestic abuse victims.
In 2012, Briggs was informed that the city had a “three strikes” rule on emergency calls for disorderly behavior at a residence and that the city would forcibly evict tenants who received a third strike. Additionally, residents could receive strikes from calls coming from the tenants themselves as well as their neighbors. At the time, Briggs was living with an abusive boyfriend and, due to a record of previous calls, was forced to stay housed with him rather than seek help. This came to a head when Briggs was hospitalized after a violent argument at her home. Because a neighbor called police to help, Briggs reached her third strike and the city had her evicted.
Ms. Briggs, with support from the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit against the City of Norristown regarding her own experiences with its nuisance ordinance. As part of this case, HUD filed a complaint stating that the ordinance violated the Fair Housing Act based on the impact it had on women experiencing domestic violence. The City of Norristown eventually settled the case and agreed to repeal their ordinances as part of the settlement. Additionally, Pennsylvania passed legislation that bans localities from creating these types of ordinances. While some states such as Pennsylvania and Illinois no longer have these policies, there are still many more where they are allowed and enforced.
So, what can be done? Many localities do not realize that these types of polices violate the Fair Housing Act, so education is key in turning the tide. HUD has released guidance on how to evaluate these ordinances using the Fair Housing Act which states that localities should remove all policies that punish residents with eviction for use of emergency services. Additionally, fair housing groups have created trainings that explain why these policies are discriminatory.