To an outsider looking in, Alice and James would have seemed like a typical Manhattan couple, both professionals and parents of one college-age son. They had lived in their rent-regulated apartment for 25 years and, while James’s name was the only one on the lease, it had never occurred to Alice to ask the landlord to add her name to the contract. That is, until his drug addiction ramped up and things— jewelry, cash and bric-a-brac—started to vanish from the unit.
Alice eventually confronted James and according to her lawyer, William Gribben, his response was to slam her into a wall and threaten to push her out a window and kill her. “She escaped,” Gribben said, and went to a friend’s house. A day or two later Alice went to family court to request an order excluding James from the apartment so that she could return home. The judge refused, saying that because James was the only tenant of record, he could not help her.
Shortly thereafter, an already distraught Alice got a frantic phone call from a neighbor, informing her that all of her possessions had been dumped on the street. “Alice’s husband had signed a surrender agreement, giving up the apartment,” Gribben says, “and the landlord had obtained an order of eviction. This all happened in a matter of weeks.” Gribben filed a lawsuit to reinstate Alice, and won, allowing her to move back into the apartment, but the case highlights a common problem for victims of domestic abuse. In much of the country, survivors—85 percent to 90 percent of whom are women—are revictimized by housing policies that disproportionately impact low-and-moderate income tenants in both privately owned and government-subsidized rentals.
Local Ordinances Blame Victims of Domestic Abuse
In more than 25 states, the threatened eviction is sanctioned by local laws—interchangeably called crime free ordinances, disorderly behavior ordinances and nuisance ordinances—that allow a tenant to be evicted if he or she is involved in criminal activity, causes property damage, disrupts the peace and tranquility of other residents or is deemed a nuisance by a landlord or local law enforcement personnel.
Unfortunately, these laws often punish the most marginalized people, especially when domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault are factors.
Take the following examples. In Detroit, Michigan, an abuser broke into the apartment of his ex-wife, smashed windows, and was arrested for home invasion. Nonetheless, the female tenant faced eviction. In Berlin, New Hampshire, a landlord refused to renew a woman’s lease after police were called in response to a domestic violence complaint. Similarly, in Glen Burnie, Maryland, a property manager served a 30-day notice to vacate on a family within days of the prime tenant’s release from the hospital. She had been repeatedly stabbed by her boyfriend and was still recovering. All three had been labeled “nuisances” both by property owners and police.
One of the most well-known cases, however, is that of Lakisha Briggs. Briggs, a nursing assistant, was living with her then-three-year-old daughter in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb, when she was told to leave her apartment in 2012. Briggs had called the police five times between January and May and had been warned by the building management that if she made one more call for help, she would be evicted. Not surprisingly, when her ex showed up in June 2012 and used a broken ashtray to slash her in the head and neck, she did not reach for the phone. But a concerned neighbor did, and even though Briggs suffered injuries so severe that she had to be airlifted to a hospital, the incident triggered a Norristown ordinance that stipulated that three calls to police in four months constituted a “nuisance.” Court documents reveal that city officials had pressured her landlord to initiate eviction proceedings against her; he complied since failure to do so would have compromised his livelihood.
Briggs sued to stop the threatened displacement from her Section Eight subsidized apartment. She was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, whose lawyers successfully argued that the Norristown Nuisance Ordinance violated the federal Fair Housing Act, which bars gender-based discrimination in all public and privately owned dwellings. Her ACLU lawyers also pointed to the Violence Against Women Act, which protects domestic violence survivors in federally subsidized housing from bias and mandates that consistent housing policies be in place so that victims of domestic violence can remain safe. They also noted that the policy violates the First Amendment right to free speech. Two years later, in 2014, Briggs received a settlement totaling $495,000 and the Norristown ordinance was upended, affirming that “it is unlawful to evict an individual because of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or familial status.”
Racial, class and gender bias prompting passage of nuisance bills is often blatant.
Kate Walz, director of housing justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, reports that despite the Briggs decision, so-called nuisance ordinances remain popular in every region of the country. “They’ve been promoted as a tool to root out crime since the early 1990s,” she reports, “and are heavily marketed at law enforcement conferences. The idea is that if a locale does not have this type of ordinance, all the ‘problem people’ will move into their town and overburden already overworked and underfunded police forces and social service entities.” While an exact count has never been done, the Shriver Center estimates that ordinances have been promulgated in more than 2,000 cities and towns in 44 states, many of them newly inhabited by poor and working-class people of color.
In fact, the racial, class and gender bias prompting passage of nuisance bills is often blatant, Walz continues. “In one town in Illinois, an official actually said that ‘not all renters are criminals but all criminals are renters’ and an ad promoting ordinances showed a Chicago public housing project being torn down, the implication being that tenants from these buildings—poor, mostly African American women—are headed your way. These bills respond to these fears and while ordinances did not set out to harm victims of domestic violence, they do nothing to deter the harm they cause.” She adds that the situation is exacerbated by policies that tell owners that if they do not evict a “nuisance occupant” their right to rent or manage a property will be curtailed. This means that even when a landlord wants to do right by a tenant, he or she is hampered from doing so.
Even more troubling, Walz says, is the fact that “in many jurisdictions you need a permit to be a renter, so if you were previously evicted as a nuisance, it’s on your record.” This leaves many tenants in the lurch, since it makes it difficult for those with “bad rental histories” to find a suitable domicile and increases the likelihood that they’ll agree to an out-of-court settlement— typically giving up their homes by a specific date—rather than going to court and risking being blackballed. The lucky few who are able to hire a lawyer or secure free legal representation, like Alice and Briggs, are exceptions to this troubling rule.
The actual eviction of domestic violence survivors is not the only unintended consequence of nuisance ordinances. Activists are quick to point out that these policies often unwittingly benefit assailants. Sandra Park, senior attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, calls ordinances “a legal weapon” for the abuser. “He knows that she can’t call the police without losing her home, so he targets her and escalates the abuse, armed with the nuisance law as a tool.”
Park’s exasperation is audible as she continues. “One of the biggest issues survivors face is assessing the safest thing for them to do. Sometimes reaching out to the police or taking legal action against an abuser makes things worse but the decision about what to do should always be made by the survivor,” she says. In addition, while Park acknowledges that many communities— especially those of color—are leery of calling the police, she nonetheless contends that nuisance ordinances “blame the victim instead of addressing the cause of the problem: domestic violence.” She further argues that it should be up to the woman to decide whether to call 911, go to a shelter, or seek legal assistance or counseling—and she should never, ever, have to weigh the possibility of becoming homeless against remaining safe.
Adding to the issues’ complexity, Park says, is the fact that in many low-income communities, especially those of color, police protection is not seen as a right. “Domestic violence victims already face biases from law enforcement staff who are dismissive toward claims of abuse,” she says. “In many cases this is additionally compounded by racism and discrimination based on class and gender.” In fact, in many communities of color, police are often rightly viewed primarily as sources of violence, rather than as those who protect the community from it.
It would be easy to despair, but Park and other activists emphasize that some headway has already been made in protecting abused tenants. Not only has the Norristown ordinance been nullified, but more than 20 states have instituted some protections for victims. As of January 1, 2016, California will allow victims to terminate their leases after giving their landlord two weeks’ notice, down from 30 days.
Many other cities and towns throughout the country are issuing regulations to ensure that a prior history of domestic violence will not be used against a prospective tenant; a handful stipulate that calls to 911 cannot be construed as an “eviction-worthy” nuisance when prompted by domestic abuse; numerous states mandate that a landlord must change the locks on an apartment if requested to do so by a terrified tenant; and a fair number allow a landlord to bifurcate a lease, evicting only the abuser, but not other household members from the unit, after a domestic violence conviction.
“Domestic violence is messy,” concludes the Shriver Center’s Kate Walz. “But nuisance ordinances undercut all the hard work that has been done over the past three decades to protect victims. They discourage victims from seeking help and need to be opposed.”
Eleanor J. Bader teaches English at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, N.Y. A 2015 winner of a Project Censored award for “outstanding investigative journalism” and a 2006 Independent Press Association award winner, she is coauthor of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism, and a contributor to a number of feminist blogs and print publications. This article first appeared in Truthout (truthout. org) and is reprinted with permission.