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Why people are getting evicted for calling 911

One way cities are quietly circumventing due process and fair housing laws to evict renters.

A Maricopa County constable searches as apartment while serving an eviction order on September 30, 2020, in Phoenix, Arizona.
Cities looking to punish people deemed “nuisances” are circumventing due process to evict renters.
John Moore/Getty Images

In countless cities across the country, calling 911 can get you evicted. You, the caller, that is, not the person you’re calling the police on — all because of policies called “nuisance ordinances.”

In Maplewood, Missouri, one victim of domestic violence was forced out of her home after contacting the police because of the town’s particularly egregious rental restrictions.

Between September 2011 and February 2012, Rosetta Watson was assaulted several times by a former boyfriend, according to court documents, and on at least one occasion he allegedly choked her and refused to leave, forcing her to call 911.

Watson would end up calling the police on four occasions over six months, her legal complaint states. As a result, Maplewood deemed her a “nuisance” and revoked her occupancy permit, which is required to reside in the city. She ended up moving to St. Louis, where her abuser attacked her again; now terrified of calling the police, she took herself to the hospital.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit on Watson’s behalf against Maplewood, contending that its nuisance ordinance that penalizes people for requesting emergency services is unconstitutional. The city settled the case in September 2018 to the tune of $137,000 and promised to change its ordinance to adopt “broad protections for victims of crimes or those who seek emergency assistance” and keep the ACLU looped in on nuisance enforcement, among other things.

“I thought calling 911 would help stop the abuse, but instead Maplewood punished me,” Watson said in a statement. “I lost my home, my community, and my faith in police to provide protection.”

She’s not alone. While Maplewood’s specific law is somewhat unique — requiring its residents to obtain occupancy permits — the principle behind it is not. Hundreds of other jurisdictions across the country have “crime-free” policies of some kind on the books. They differ in exact wording, but the intent is to deputize landlords as police officers but with no judge, jury, or due process for tenants. Cities looking to punish or get rid of people they see as “nuisances” without having to charge them with a specific crime implement these policies, with the effect of criminalizing often legal behavior.

In practice, they’re often adopted to keep out minorities, lower-income people, and other marginalized groups. When Bedford, Ohio, was considering adopting one after an influx of Black residents, one local said at a city council meeting that he supported the ordinance because he didn’t want Bedford turning into another “Maple Heights and Warrensville Heights” — two majority-Black cities nearby.

Some nuisance ordinances and “crime-free” laws will designate a property a public nuisance, usually after police are called multiple times to respond to incidents in the same place. Under these laws, landlords are forced to act as an arm of law enforcement and face fines and other punitive measures if they are unable or unwilling to abate the nuisance. Landlords are sometimes pressured to evict tenants who are in any way involved with nuisance activity, regardless of whether they are the victim, the perpetrator, or simply associated with the victim or perpetrator of an alleged crime.

Another form these policies take is through “crime-free leases,” with addendums in rental leases that would allow or mandate eviction after sometimes just a single instance of alleged nuisance activity. Some cities mandate the use of these leases, while others incentivize them. These lease provisions are often enforced by the police, which pressure landlords to evict “undesirable” tenants.

However, the police have a great deal of discretion in when and how they penalize potential “nuisances.” Researchers have shown that this discretion has meant poorer residents, women, and people of color bear the brunt of enforcement.

Experts tell Vox that these laws criminalize poverty, punish victims for asking for help, and have not been shown to actually reduce crime (and several pointed out that reducing 911 calls may even lead to an increase in crime). Litigation challenging these measures has revealed stark violations of civil rights law and the Constitution.

Yet they’re all over the US.

An apartment resident carries out a bag of clothing while being evicted on October 5, 2020, in Phoenix, Arizona.
John Moore/Getty Images

“Crime-free” housing policies have proliferated — despite little evidence that they make communities safer

Quantifying how many nuisance laws exist across the country and how often they lead to evictions is exceedingly difficult. Many localities don’t have their laws uploaded to the internet, and there’s no comprehensive way to search for “crime-free” clauses in leases.

In Ohio, researchers have found nearly 50 of these laws, and in Illinois, a self-described non-comprehensive list numbered roughly 100. Some researchers and advocates say nearly 2,000 localities have them, but it’s unclear how this number is being tabulated; it appears to originate from a group advocating in favor of such policies, an Arizona nonprofit called the International Crime Free Association.

In a Michigan Law Review article, Deborah Archer, a law professor at New York University, traces how these laws were adopted as part of the “expanding web of zero-tolerance policies” that criminalize “relatively nonserious behavior or activities” — most often among Black Americans — without having to find anyone guilty of any crime.

These crime-free laws rose to prominence during the 1980s and ’90s as part of the “larger discussion of the war on crime,” Sandra Park, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, told Vox. She points to the International Crime Free Association as a big influence in pushing their use. The organization’s website reads that renters and landlords in multi-family properties often “lack ownership and pride” and when listing the costs of criminal activity, notably neglects to mention the harm done to victims. Instead the organization lists harms to property values and “fear and frustration” when dealing with dangerous tenants.

Crime is a real problem. People deserve to feel safe and secure in their communities. But there is a justice system for a reason — if someone is committing a crime, then police ought to arrest them and convict them in a court of law. Americans have constitutional rights that are meant to protect them from facing punishments without due process.

Further, the implementation of these laws reveals that often this isn’t about limiting criminal activity, it’s frequently about the type of person people view as undesirable neighbors.

“They want an extrajudicial process to get rid of [nuisances],” Park explained.

A comprehensive report authored by researchers at Cleveland State University and the ACLU of Ohio found that these laws are usually adopted when “residents express frustration with their neighbors’ behaviors and often perceive the city and police response to their complaints to be inadequate.” These frustrations they note are rarely to do with serious crimes but rather “annoying or rude behavior and their wish for a certain community character.”

Robert McNamara is a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which has sued Granite City, Illinois, over its nuisance ordinance. He told Next City that he believes these laws are “part of a broader contempt that government officials have for renters. ... A lot of cities are hostile towards rental properties and their ‘less desirable’ occupants.”

Several researchers have pointed to the trend of cities adopting these ordinances as a response to demographic change, not burgeoning crime. Archer points to the example of Faribault, Minnesota, where the Black population rose 214 percent between 2000 and 2010, which led to residents complaining about an increase of crime, including drug activity and theft. However, Archer notes that “police reported that records did not support any claims of an increase” and that the chief attributed issues to “cultural differences.”

Mark Talbot, the chief of police in Norristown, Pennsylvania, told Vox he hadn’t seen “any evidence that this is a reasonable method of crime reduction.” He added that these laws “run counter to our mission. What about this is protecting? What about this is serving?”

The International Crime Free Association has testimonials on its website about the benefits of “crime-free multi-family housing” policies but, when asked by Vox, did not point to academic research indicating the policies reduce crime.

Talbot has advocated for the elimination of these policies both in the cities where he has served and in other jurisdictions, citing reduced community trust in police: “Any police department will say we want people to call us when there is a problem. ... You can’t both be mad when nobody calls and mad when they do call.”

Park, who has been leading the charge against nuisance ordinances from the ACLU, said that she has “never seen and there’s never been any studies or data ... that show that somehow these ordinances make their communities safer.”

Nuisance ordinances are often in violation of civil rights laws and the Constitution

Challenges to nuisance ordinances fall into a few buckets: Fair Housing Act (FHA) violations, First Amendment violations, due process violations, and violations of the Violence Against Women Act. By and large, these challenges succeed.

“I can’t recall any instances where I’ve heard the challenges [to nuisance laws] defeated,” said Kris Keniray, associate director of the Fair Housing Center for Rights and Research.

Vox couldn’t confirm that challenges have been 100 percent successful, but the case of Somai v. City of Bedford exemplifies many of the ways nuisance ordinances have been found to violate the Constitution and various laws.

The complaint, filed by Beverley Somai and the Fair Housing Center for Rights and Research, details how the ordinance was implemented in Bedford — and that residents worried about the “mixture of the community,” as one man put it during the 2005 city council meeting where officials would unanimously adopt a nuisance ordinance.

In response, the mayor noted that “we believe in neighborhoods, not hoods” and that students walking down the streets “are predominantly African American kids who bring in that mentality from the inner city where that was a gang-related thing by staking their turf. We are trying to stop that.”

Comments like these bolstered the plaintiffs’ claim that Bedford’s law violated the Fair Housing Act’s protections against racial discrimination. Their argument is one the Department of Housing and Urban Development itself has clarified for localities, noting in 2016 guidance that a local government would be in violation of the FHA if their policies have “an unjustified discriminatory effect, even when the local government had no intent to discriminate.” The department specifically calls out the “selective use of nuisance or criminal conduct as a pretext for unequal treatment of individuals based on protected characteristics.”

This isn’t unique to Bedford’s policy: Sociologists Matthew Desmond and Nicol Valdez studied nuisance citations in Milwaukee over a two-year period and found clear signs of disparate treatment. Of the “503 properties deemed nuisances, 319 were located in black neighborhoods, compared to 18 in white neighborhoods,” they write. They also found that this was not because residents in these places were placing more 911 calls than other places.

The Bedford plaintiff also argued that the nuisance ordinance interfered with “Ms. Somai’s First Amendment right to petition her government for redress of grievances.” Essentially, the right to call 911 is protected by the Constitution.

This case also centered due process rights. Nuisance laws generally do not afford due process for tenants, as the legal dispute is between the city and the landlord — like an unmanicured lawn or a fallen tree. Often, tenants have no idea why they’re being evicted or are unaware that the police are enforcing a nuisance law against their landlord. And no conviction or even arrest is necessary for an individual to lose their home under these laws.

Somai’s complaint noted that Bedford’s nuisance ordinance “does not require any notice to tenants ... nor does it give tenants an opportunity to contest” the allegations against them.

The suit highlights the protections provided by the Violence Against Women Act, which the complainants write “express a clear federal policy that is inconsistent with ... the City’s policy of penalizing survivors of domestic violence.”

As is often the case with these types of lawsuits, the city settled, agreeing to repeal the law within 30 days and pay $350,000 in damages.

With nuisance ordinances, victims of violent crime rarely seem to be the object of concern. Rather it’s the irritation they may cause their more affluent neighbors that worries enforcers. Desmond and Valdez document the case of Sheila M., who had called the police several times after being “beaten” repeatedly. Her landlord outlined his plan on how to “abate a nuisance” in an email to the Milwaukee Police Department:

“We suggested she obtain a gun and kill him in self-defense, but evidently she hasn’t. Therefore we are evicting her.”