In Pennsylvania and other states, police can force landlords to evict tenants who officers consider to be a nuisance. According to the New York Times, under so-called "nuisance property" laws, individuals like domestic violence victim Lakisha Briggs of Norristown, PA can be told by police that if they call 911 one more time, they'll be forced out of their homes.
The nuisance ordinances are intended to protect residential neighborhoods from rowdy, disruptive households, but in cases like Briggs', they can leave victims of violence in an impossible situation, needing to call for help, but knowing it could cost them their home. Under the laws, officials can bring pressure to bear on landlords to evict a tenant if they've been called to a rental property more than three times in a four month period.
Briggs, 34, said that her violent, volatile ex-boyfriend showed up at her house at the beginning of summer 2012, fresh out of jail from their last fight, demanding to move in.
“If I called the police to get him out of my house, I’d get evicted,” she told the Times. “If I physically tried to remove him, somebody would call 911 and I’d be evicted.”
The nuisance laws are growing in popularity around the country. They are ostensibly enacted to enable landlords to weed out drug dealers and other disruptive tenants from rental properties and create "crime-free neighborhoods." Unfortunately, they often end up placing victims of domestic violence and other crimes at the mercy of their abusers.
Harvard University sociologist Matthew Desmond said to the Times, "These laws threaten citizens’ fundamental right to call on the police for help."
Desmond authored a report entitled "Unpolicing the Urban Poor: Consequences of Third-Party Policing for Inner-City Women" that examined years of citations issued to landlords in Milwaukee, WI. More than a third of the cases, he found, involved domestic violence.
He also found that the laws disproportionately targeted rental properties located in poor, mostly-African American neighborhoods.
In Norristown, Briggs was forced out of fear of eviction to allow her ex-partner Wilbert Bennet to move into her house. Weeks later, another altercation took place in which Bennet beat her and cut her with a broken ashtray, leaving her with puncture wounds and a 4-inch gash in her neck. Before she lost consciousness, she begged a neighbor not to call the police because she knew she'd lose her home.
The neighbor called anyway and Briggs was airlifted to Philadelphia for emergency treatment. Bennet is in prison for the assault, but police served Briggs' landlord with a notice that they'd lose their rental license of Briggs wasn't evicted within 10 days.
Briggs, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has filed a federal suit against Norristown city officials. The city has backed down on the eviction order, but Briggs said she plans to move anyway to a place that Bennet can't find when he is released from prison.
Norristown officials claim that Briggs failed to take out protection orders against Bennet as police instructed, and that in the 10 times police were called to her residence from January to May of 2012, they never saw evidence that she was physically injured. They claim that concern for the health and safety of Briggs' neighbors was what prompted them to order her landlord to kick her out.
The lawsuit “fails to take into consideration the health, safety and welfare of all neighbors who live in proximity to a disorderly house,” they said.
ACLU lawyer Sandra S. Park told the Times that "nuisance property" laws are "fundamentally flawed."
“The problem with these ordinances is that they turn victims of crime who are pleading for emergency assistance into ‘nuisances’ in the eyes of the city,” she said. “They limit people’s ability to seek help from police and punish victims for criminal activity committed against them.”
[image of woman contemplating using phone to call for help via Shutterstock.com]