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nuisance ordinances

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Dr. Gretchen Arnold is currently an assistant professor of sociology at Saint Louis University. She has been performing research on issues of violence against women for over 25 years and has been working with the domestic violence movement in St. Louis since the late 1980s.

Yidi Wu: Can you explain what nuisance ordinances are for our readers?

Gretchen Arnold: Nuisance laws have been around for probably most of the 20th century. It was only in the latter part of the 20th century that they started being used to—by cities, primarily—to maintain certain standards of behavior. A lot of municipalities across the country started passing nuisance ordinances that specifically targeted behaviors like prostitution, drug dealings, gun sales, peace disturbances, or loud parties. So it really is an attempt to ensure a particular quality of life for urban residents. And they are passed primarily at the municipal level. I believe that there are a few counties around the country that have passed them. But they are primarily municipal ordinances. What my research has shown is that nuisance laws often end up causing victims of domestic violence to be evicted from their homes.

The way nuisance laws generally work, and certainly the way they work in St. Louis, is this: When people call 911, they have to give an address of where the problem is for the police or emergency responders to go. It’s the actual property address that is recorded. So it doesn’t matter if it’s the person living there or if it’s the neighbor or someone else [who is calling]. If they call about a particular address—let’s say they’re calling about crime or something happening at an address—then the police go to that address. Now different [nuisance] ordinances will specify what counts as too many 911 calls [for a property], and once you’ve made too many calls then that becomes a nuisance.  In St. Louis City, it’s two or more calls in a 12 month period. In other places it could be as many as four calls in a month.

Once a property is deemed a “nuisance property,” then the property owner has to “abate the nuisance.” In practice, this means that landlords often end up evicting the tenants in order to stop the 911 calls. And more often than not, in domestic violence cases the tenant is the victim and her children.

YW: What happens to residents with a nuisance record? Where do victims go?

GA: Well, a lot of times they end up homeless. A lot of times they end up in battered women’s shelters, or in more generic homeless shelters. Sometimes they end up couch surfing, or staying with relatives. Sometimes they end up living in their cars. Or, if they’re lucky, they try to find another rental unit. But once they have, once it’s on their rental record that they have been cited as a nuisance or they’ve been evicted as a nuisance citation, then it becomes much harder for them to find another place to live.

YW: Is there any way for a resident to fight a nuisance record?

GA: They can fight it, but to fight it, you have to have access to some sort of legal representation really. And most people don’t know how to do this on their own. There are some places where you can get free legal services, so it is possible to fight it. But most domestic violence victims, especially those who are low-income, don’t know where to go, and if they did, it would be difficult for them to get there. People just don’t have access to legal representation. If the cases do make it to court, at least in St. Louis, I think they will almost always be dismissed, if it can be shown that the calls were for domestic violence. The issue is that few of them ever make it to court.

Another thing that could happen is that the landlord could contest the nuisance property citation. We looked into that in our first study, where we interviewed law enforcement officials and domestic violence residents. In principle, that’s fine, the landlord can do that. It is often the case that the landlords know what is going on at the rental units they have. Of the women we spoke with in our second case study, many said that their landlords were sympathetic, that it wasn’t their fault, but [the landlords] felt they were being pressured by the police, and they were going to lose control of their properties if the 911 calls didn’t stop. So, the landlords could be the ones to contest it. However, the landlords, too, have to have access to legal representation. Or they have to be well-educated enough, and have enough social status, to complain and to be taken seriously. I interviewed one local official who had sat in on a number of these kinds of meetings that landlords had with local law enforcement officials, and this official told me that how the landlord was treated in these meetings very much depended upon the perceived social class and educational level of the landlord. And some landlords were treated with respect and listened to and others were more or less forced to or told to do x, y, and z. And they need a certain amount of social power, and not all of them have that.

YW: How do nuisance ordinances affect victims of domestic abuse or residents of lower-income neighborhoods?

GA: Nine-one-one calls are much more common in lower-income neighborhoods and in minority neighborhoods, for a variety of reasons. Victims of domestic violence, especially, call 911 a lot, for protection. Now, we interviewed 27 people who had been targets of nuisance property enforcements, primarily when they had called 911 for domestic violence issues. And 27 of those interviewees were very low-income African Americans. We heard some hair-raising stories from them. Not only about how it affected them personally. But that their entire neighborhoods, all the residents were afraid to call 911 for any reason.

The ACLU has done some research that duplicates this in other jurisdictions. Once nuisance property ordinances are in effect, they tend to have a chilling effect on people for calling 911 for any reason, not just for the reasons that are cited in the ordinance.

YW: Is it very widely known that nuisance laws can get you evicted?

GA: Well, I don’t know how many people don’t call 911, but I know that people are afraid to call 911. Depending on the situation, they might go ahead and call anyway. Many of them are afraid to call 911. For example, one woman told us a story about how she lived down the block from a house. A woman had been kidnapped from East St. Louis and brought to this house down the block from our interviewee and held there against her will for a week. And the woman was finally able to get free by jumping from a second story window and broke both of her legs—but at least at that point she was able to get away from her captor. And what our interviewee told us was that that everybody in the neighborhood knew what was going on, but no one called 911 because they were afraid that they would then be fined or evicted for calling 911 too often.

YW: Emergency calls seem more common in poorer neighborhoods, but it also seems that nuisance ordinances are particularly harmful for residents of those neighborhoods. Do you think there is also discrimination in enforcement against domestic abuse victims or minority residents?

GA: I don’t know. And I think that this depends a lot on where it is and the policies that local law enforcement pursue. In the city of St. Louis, when they started enforcing the current type of nuisance ordinance that targets quality-of-life issues, a lot of battered women’s advocates began hearing from women that they were trying to help about nuisance laws, and advocates in turn went and complained to the police. And the local domestic violence community has a very long-standing relationship [with the police]—and sometimes it’s better and sometimes it’s worse, but they have worked together for decades around domestic violence issues. And so the police took their complaints very seriously. And the police did institute an internal policy where they tried to determine when some nuisance violations were because of domestic violence, and in those cases to not enforce the law in a way that would harm the victim. Now that’s their stated policy, and there are various mechanisms for how they try to do that.

YW: Are nuisance ordinances likely to be banned and struck down?

GA: Well, I have been in touch with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, in New York City. My contact person there is Sandra Park. And she and others at the ACLU have filed lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions around the country to get the laws either invalidated or changed. And so far, and I can’t say how many they’ve actually filed (my guess is fewer than five but I don’t know that for sure). So far the result has been, in a lawsuit, that municipalities tend to cave really quickly. They withdraw the ordinance, strike it down, and just stop enforcing it. So far, to my knowledge, no municipality has fought to keep the ordinance.

The ACLU is contesting nuisance laws on the grounds of the First Amendment on grounds of petitioning the government, where petitioning the government includes calling 911 or other emergency services. So those are the grounds on which they’re contesting them. I think the ACLU’s strategy—their sort of bigger picture strategy—is to get state legislatures to pass laws that say that no jurisdiction within the state can pass or enforce a law that denies people the right to request emergency services. And so that includes calling an ambulance, calling the fire department, or calling the police. And the last I knew, they were working on it in New York state. And I believe that Illinois may be considering the same kind of law. So, what they want to do is, at the state level, just get the state to say that no municipality or county can enforce a law that denies people the right to call 911 for emergency services.

YW: Do nuisance ordinances serve any unique purpose?

GA: Now I will say, to give you a whole picture, that the nuisance ordinances in St. Louis City have been useful in some instances. For instance, we live in an urban neighborhood. It’s a mixed-income neighborhood. Mixed-income, mixed-race, mixed-ethnicity. And we really like it for that reason. However, we’ve lived here for 23 years. And over that time, there have been problem properties on that block. For a time, in the 1990s, there was a crack house down at the end of the block. Then, about four years ago, there was another house, again at the end of the block. These are mostly single-family houses, and there are multi-family units, and the multi-family units are pretty run down. And in one of these units, there would be huge parties, and we found out later there was also heroin being sold out of that apartment. And the police and prosecutors in the city of St. Louis liked the nuisance ordinance because it enabled them to very quickly shut down these buildings. They could force the tenants or make the landlords force the tenants to leave, and they could also force the landlord to sell the building—or what they do is they say we’ll board up the building for a year, and you can’t use the building for a year, and oftentimes the landlord will sell the building. And that’s precisely what happened at the end of our block. They boarded up the units, the landlord sold the building, the developer came in and fixed the units up, and now it’s in decent shape and there are tenants who aren’t the source of these problems anymore.

What I want to say is that the police feel that it is a very efficient way for them to quickly deal with and eliminate these kinds of problems on properties. And my observation has been that yes, it does work. But there’s got to be a better way to do it.