Last January, a woman in Lakewood, Ohio, ran to her neighbor’s house, bleeding from her face with a broken nose and concussion from a vicious attack by her boyfriend. With her neighbor’s help, she called the police, who took her to the hospital. Three days later, the city wrote the woman’s landlord: “Your tenant had a visitor over to the residence where he assaulted her. He was charged with felonious assault. This activity qualifies the property as a nuisance.”
A few months earlier, another Lakewood resident called a suicide hotline and threatened to kill himself. The crisis center alerted local police, who then sent a letter to the man’s landlord. “This activity qualifies the property as a nuisance,” a city lawyer warned, also noting that the man had been attacked by a stranger a few months earlier and had an unrelated argument with a friend. “You can avoid being charged the costs of abatement by taking documented steps to prevent any further nuisance activity.” Within weeks, the property owner evicted the “nuisance” tenant.
In both cases, tenants placed calls that may have saved their lives. But under local laws known as criminal activity nuisance ordinances, these calls also placed them at risk of losing their homes. Thousands of cities nationwide declare properties a “nuisance” if police or emergency services respond to an address too frequently, which typically means more than once within a year. Property owners face fines of hundreds or thousands of dollars, or even misdemeanor criminal charges, if they do not address the nuisance, which often means evicting the people who live there. A study of Milwaukee landlords found that eviction of tenants was the most common response to nuisance letters.
Proponents argue these laws create safer communities by giving cities tools to get rid of burdensome residents without the proof or process necessary to convict someone of a crime. Working with colleagues at Cleveland State University and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio to collect and analyze thousands of pages of nuisance-related public records, we discovered a disturbing trend in the enforcement of these laws: Nuisance designations are regularly given to properties occupied by survivors of domestic violence, people experiencing mental health crises and residents seeking medical assistance to prevent a fatal drug overdose. Even nonprofit organizations serving people with disabilities face nuisance fines when the people they serve require medical attention.
Eviction is the most common outcome for renters living in properties designated as “nuisance.” Eviction — which would represent a crisis for anyone — exacerbates the underlying trauma that led to the emergency call in the first place. Domestic violence is already a leading cause of homelessness for women, and nuisance laws codify this relationship into public policy. For people with mental health or substance abuse disorders, losing housing increases the risk of relapse or suicide. Nuisance laws don’t solve the underlying issues. They make things worse.
Nuisance laws can force an impossible decision between risking one’s home or one’s life. Rather than face potential fines, eviction or other penalties, residents may avoid reaching out to police for help in times of crisis. This can carry grave consequences. For example, in 2012, police informed a Pennsylvania woman who had been repeatedly attacked by an ex-boyfriend that she had used up her “strikes” and future police calls would be punishable under the city’s nuisance ordinance. The ex-boyfriend, aware that the woman would face additional penalties for future 911 calls, became more aggressive and taunted her to make the call for help. The abuse escalated until she was nearly killed in an attack that required an airlift to the hospital. Faced with fines of $1,000 a day and the revocation of his rental license until the “nuisance” tenant left the property, the landlord felt forced to begin eviction proceedings. Although the court said she could stay in her home, the city continued to pressure the landlord to remove her, even threatening to bring its own eviction case.
Recent lawsuits by the A.C.L.U. and others argue that nuisance laws run afoul of the Fair Housing Act and the Constitution. Some cities have repealed their laws following these suits, but others have refused, and the litigation remains ongoing. Legalities aside, our analysis of real-life cases shows that nuisance laws harm people by further stigmatizing mental health and addiction and discouraging those who need care from seeking and accessing available resources. Yet year after year, cities continue to adopt criminal activity nuisance laws as they look for solutions to address resident perceptions about safety. Unfortunately, with this shortcut, they’re unintentionally making their neighborhoods less safe by discouraging people from seeking assistance when they need it.
Issues like domestic violence, mental health and drug addiction lack easy answers, but telling landlords to exile people in crisis — whose emergency calls may save their lives — is cruel, counterproductive and could even be illegal. Cities should look for real solutions to their residents’ traumas, instead of treating them as nuisances when they need help.