Local Nuisance Ordinances Disproportionately Impact Renters, Minorities, and Victims of Domestic Violence

A paper by researchers at Cleveland State University and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, Who is a Nuisance? Criminal Activity Nuisance Ordinances in Ohio, finds local nuisance ordinances disproportionately impact the housing stability of renters and people of color.

Criminal activity nuisance ordinances (CANOs) typically penalize a property owner with fines if repeat incidents of nuisance behavior occur on his or her property, unless the owner takes steps to abate the nuisance. Nuisances can be defined as any criminal activity or minor grievances that occur on the property. Landlords often respond to violations by evicting tenants as a way to avoid a fine. Nuisance ordinances can result in housing instability for a tenant who requests emergency assistance for such emergencies like domestic violence, suicide prevention, or drug overdoses, if the property is then defined as a nuisance. As a result, nuisance ordinances can deter tenants from requesting emergency assistance.

Nuisance ordinances exist in approximately 2,000 municipalities nationwide. The report focuses on their use in four relatively large inner-ring suburban communities of Cleveland, OH: Bedford, Lakewood, Euclid, and Parma. In these four cities, more than 50% of CANO letters sent to owners were related to rental properties, although renters comprised a smaller percentage of the overall population. Landlords can typically avoid a fine by evicting tenants they deem responsible for the nuisances, so the most common landlord response is to evict their tenant. Previous research indicates that evictions can result in displaced tenants moving to lower quality homes in higher poverty neighborhoods, negatively impacting children’s academic achievement, adult employment, and mental and physical health. 

Nuisance ordinance violations can be triggered even when the property’s tenant is a victim of a crime rather than the perpetrator. As a result, victims of domestic violence can be evicted when requesting emergency assistance during an attack. In the four communities studied by the report, in 20% to 58% of properties identified for nuisances, the nuisances were the result of domestic violence. Two of the communities have since amended their nuisance ordinances to remove domestic violence as a nuisance.

CANOs can also deter requests for assistance from tenants during drug overdoses out of fear of an eviction stemming from a nuisance complaint. In 10% to 40% of properties designated as nuisances in the four communities, the nuisances involved drug overdoses.

The report also questions the constitutionality of nuisance ordinances that do not provide due process to allow renters to challenge a violation. Because violations are related to properties, property owners are able to appeal violations but not the renters who are likely to be impacted by an eviction. The report also indicates that many nuisance ordinances are adopted by city councils in an effort to protect “community character.” Issues of race and class are often present during public discussions of nuisance ordinances.

Who is a Nuisance? Criminal Activity Nuisance Ordinances in Ohio is available at: http://bit.ly/2AkCRih