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Nuisance codes

Do local nuisance codes restrict tenants' rights, endanger tenants safety, and make victims of domestic violence more victimized? 
Adding "violence" to Ohio's nuisance law can put tenants at risk
 
    Senate Bill 201 in the Ohio General Assembly would add "violence" to the list of reasons for a municipality (or a neighbor) to bring a nuisance complaint against a property. Suddenly tenants could find themselves without a home if an act of violence were to occur at their property. While some advocates are working with the Bill's sponsors, Jim Hughes (R) and Kenneth Yuko (D), to make changes, the whole idea is fraught with peril for renters. Luckily, there's been enough vocal opposition that the sponsors called off a hearing scheduled for this past week and said that they would be convening an "interested parties" meeting before considering amendments to the bill. 
    The Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO) has taken a strong stand by asking that SB 201 be amended to make"residential property exempt from the bill. COHHIO's Bill Faith wrote to Senator Hughes: "I believe you have heard from others about the burden this bill could impose on landlords and other property owners who may well be innocent by-standers when an act of violence may occur at their property. This would be true for tenants or the homeowners of the residential property as well." (emphasis added)
    Prosecutors argue that this new provision is necessary to control blight in Ohio's major cities. But is now he time to giving police and prosecutors another tool to harass low income citizens? Cleveland's in the midst of retraining its police force; Cincinnati just came out from a Justice Department oversight, and, locally and across the country, private cops who work for universities, housing authorities, and other "public entities" are under scrutiny for citizen harassment. 
    Here's a few of the reasons why adding "violence" to the list of reasons to declare a nuisance would be a bad idea. 
  • "Violence" is too broad a term. It could be anything from a domestic dispute or a childrens' squabble to a mugging or shooting. 
  • There's no protection in the bill for innocent bystanders. Violence in one unit of a four suite building could displace all the households whether they were involved or not. Victims of domestic violence could be dispossessed just because they were assaulted.
  • Selective enforcement is guaranteed. Can you imagine a suburban family home padlocked because a child who lives there starts a fight with a neighbor? No, no, no...little suburban Johnnie will get therapy. It's the inner city dwellers who will be targeted for displacement.
  • A slumlord is off the hook. When the slumlord rents to people who will threaten their neighbors or the community and the slumlord fails to correct a problem...so what? The slumlord loses some rent, but doesn't need to pay for evictions. The prosecutor does the lock out, and then the slumlord is back in business. 
  • Nuisance enforcement makes neighbors less willing to make police reports. Want to make neighbors less willing to get involved? Put their homes at risk if they report criminal activity. 
  • Nuisance enforcement undermines criminal enforcement. Using nuisance abatement as a law enforcement tool just moves criminal activity down the street. Replacing incarceration with dispossession is scarcely a solution. Look at the experience of nuisance enforcement on drug houses. No police department has used that approach since the 1990's.
Politicians like to sound tough on crime and prosecutors like to use a cheap short cut that seems to solve the problem, but there are innocent victims and no long term benefits. Bad idea!

"Work to protect tenants rights in the Ohio General Assembly" is RHINO priority #1 for 2015 and "Continue to research tenant civil rights issues: including banning, surveillance, guest policies, nuisance property laws" is RHINO priority #5. Read the RHINO priorities here.

Nuisance Call Codes and Tenants' Rights

    There have been a couple stories recently about local nuisance codes (codes designed to punish landlords at properties where there are excessive police calls). The problem with these codes is that just judging the number of calls from a property doesn't tell you whether the calls are frivolous, or indicative of "excessive traffic" that may signal the presence a "drug house", or calls from a victim of domestic violence. This latter case presents problems for both landlords and tenant victims.
Landlords who are warned about excessive police calls often tell tenants that they should NOT call the cops. That can leave victims of domestic violence in a quandary when an unwanted person arrives uninvited in a threatening manner 
    Legal protections for victims of domestic violence have just been extended to many types of Federal assisted housing (including low income housing tax credit housing) under the reenactment of the Violence against women act...so that if a Federally assisted housing provider is counseling victims of domestic violence to avoid calling the cops, the housing provider could be discriminating.
    Neighbor to neighbor disputes is another way in which landlords (who are not responsible to enforce the tenant duty of peaceful enjoyment) may play into nuisance law enforcement. Landlords may want to take a second look if they have a policy of ignoring tenant-tenant disputes because when a landlord is uninvolved, tenants with a dispute have only one recourse-call the cops.
Thanks to Joyce for suggesting this article and for Kelan in supplying many of the links.

What about when calling the cops is a lease violation?
    Many tenants have lease provisions (or house rules) that make excessive police calls to be grounds for lease termination.  Is that discrimination?      Maybe...
  • If the facts show that termination for police calls is used only  against households of protected classes, the action could be discriiminatory. 
  • Even if the circumstances show that the lease provision or rule is applied evenly, it may be that households with protected classes are disproportionately affected and have grounds for a charge. 
Remember that protected classes include: race, color, religion, national origin, female head of household, families with children and persons with disability.  In Ohio, add ancestry and military status.  In Federally assisted housing add LGBT and Victims of Domestic Violence.

What to do?
1.  Individuals who believe that they may have been discriminated against are urged to contact their local Fair Housing organization. 
2.  Advocates in communities may want to investigate their municipal polices about excessive police calls to see if their programs seem to discriminate against protected classes.
3.  Advocates may want to get involved in efforts to extend Federal VAWA protections to all rental properties in Ohio. 
See HB 297



 
What's News?

Nuisance "dispossessions" continue to be a problem
       When police ask local prosecutors to board up a "nuisance property" or when landlords ask police to remove a "banned" guest or resident, or when police call up a landlord and demand that the landlord evict a tenant...they are acting outside the landlord tenant law and compromising tenants rights.     
       At a time when the police shootings of civilians are in the news and rank and file police are pushing back against progressive reforms (here and here), the on-going problem of police use of "dispossession" to kick tenants from their homes with little or no due process continues just below the surface of public awareness.  From drug busts (not convictions) that result in board up orders against bystanders to police pressure on landlords to evict "problem tenants," the stories continue because the practice of using nuisance or banning orders to push tenants into the streets continues across the country.
     Add to police shootings and coverups the impunity of making tenants homeless without due process of law.
posted September 16, 2016

August 30, 2016 Occupancy codes can disguise discrimination 
 The story behind the headline " 'In gentrifying D.C., apartments for large families are quickly disappearing' doesn't really tell the whole story. Yes, economics plays a part in conflicts over local occupancy codes, but that's not the issue in this case. The real issue is the conscious reduction or large bedroom units acting as a form of housing discrimination. From the article: "Brookland’s owner, Mid-City Financial Corp., based in Germantown, Md., told the city’s Zoning Commission that four- and five-bedroom apartments 'are not consistent with the creation of a vibrant new community.' " In other words "we don't like your kind." The article continues: "Tenants’ advocates, who filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday alleging housing discrimination, interpret Mid-City’s assertions as a polite way of saying that the company is worried that the multi-generational families will make the soon-to-be-rebranded 'Brentwood Village' a harder sell to the affluent professionals flocking to the nation’s capital." 
The reality is that low income and minority families often have larger households than middle income and white households. Economics and culture make larger family units a survival necessity.   
More on occupancy codes take a look at "Granny meets NiMBY"

March 4, 2016 Columbus Dispatch Nuisance enforcement in Columbus proceeds deliberately
       Columbus Dispatch reports the the City of Columbus is taking steps to shut down a 16 unit apartment building in the city's Hilltop District. it appears that City officials are moving in carefully to avoid unnecessary hardship on tenants who are not involved in criminal activity. "Assistant City Attorney Kristen Kroflich called the conditions at 2958 Sullivant Ave. deplorable and owner Gordon Rankin’s inattention reckless. She said some tenants have no heat, and use stoves and electric grills to warm their apartments. The steel landing is riddled with holes. 'No one should have to live in an environment like that,' Kroflich said. 'It’s not humane.' 
      A question remains: who pays for relocation costs? Because the city uses Federal funds for Code Enforcement activities, it is arguable that some of the displaced tenants may be eligible for relocation assistance under the Federal Uniform Relocation Act (URA). If not many will turn to private charities to help them find new homes. 

February 8, 2016 NEW YORK DAILY NEWS Report on NYPD removing residents from public housing draws outrage from city officials
Outraged public officials across the city Sunday called for change in the wake of a sweeping Daily News and ProPublica report uncovering widespread use of an obscure type of lawsuit to boot hundreds of people from homes. Several City Council members said they were considering amendments and other reforms to the nuisance abatement law to safeguard against abuse. Councilwoman Vanessa L. Gibson said the statistics included in the story are “shocking.”
more here and here

11/13/15 Get abused, get Evicted CityLab takes up the issue of nuisance call laws. in the story Get abused, Get Evicted. From the story: “The police contacted my property manager because I’d called the police too many times,” says Markham, who spoke to reporters during a media call in August. “I’d never heard of this law before.” 

11/14/15 CityLab takes up the issue of nuisance call laws. in the story Get abused, Get Evicted. From the story: “The police contacted my property manager because I’d called the police too many times,” says Markham, who spoke to reporters during a media call in August. “I’d never heard of this law before.”

9/21/15 New law prevents domestic abuse victims from being evicted under 'nuisance' lawsIn dozens of Illinois cities, a tenant who calls police too many times for protection from an abusive spouse or an intruding ex bent on violence can be evicted as a "nuisance." Starting Nov. 19, state law requires those cities to carve out critical exceptions for domestic battery and disability in "nuisance-property" ordinances. Two civil rights groups have blanketed the state with alerts to help cities prepare and offer assistance.

5/12/15 SILENCED: HOW NUISANCE ORDINANCES PUNISH CRIME VICTIMS IN NEW YORK

4/15/15 Some Pennsylvania towns evict tenants based on 911 calls

2/5/15 Cincinnati's Nuisance call ordinance is back in the news. In 2006, Cincinnati enacted a nuisance call ordinance which targetted owners of multifamily properties where tenants were frequently calling 911. For many reasons, including push back from both the landlord and tenant advocates...the law's been on hiatus. Now, according to Fox19 news, Mayor Cranley is looking at cranking up enforcement. Thanks to KatL for sharing
10/30/14: Police harrassment continues Despite the settlement of the Norristown ordinance which pushes landlords to evict tenants for calling the cops, liberal Oakland, California has enacted an ordinance which will 'encourage' landlords to evict sex workers for causing nuisance calls.

10/10/14 More on Norristown settlement--maybe basis for local action? A settlement in charges by HUD against the City of Norristown Pa reinforce the notion that "nuisance call" laws may be violations of Federal Fair Housing Laws. In this settlement, HUD AND PHILADELPHIA-AREA BOROUGH SETTLE ALLEGATIONS OF HOUSING DISCRIMINATION AGAINST VICTIMS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, the parties agreed to end the city's practice of requiring landlords to evict tenants for calling 911. "The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced today that is has reached a Conciliation Agreement with Norristown, Pennsylvania, settling allegations that the municipality violated the Fair Housing Act when it enacted ordinances that held landlords responsible for evicting tenants cited for "disorderly behavior," including domestic violence incidents, or risk being fined or losing their rental license. Norristown's City Council subsequently repealed the original law but passed a similar ordinance that same day which called for charging landlords mounting fines for tenants that display disruptive behavior." This settlement points the way towards challenging both lease provisions that restrict frequent police calls and municipal ordinances that punish landlords for failing to take action against tenants who call for police assistance. More here

3/5/14 Salem Ohio considers nuisance callers. "City Council's Committee of the Whole spent an hour Tuesday learning about the Better Landlord program, aimed at improving housing, reducing crime and rewarding good landlords. No action was taken, with Councilman Brian Whitehill, who arranged for the presentation, saying it was strictly informational at this point. He said he has talked with police Chief J.T. Panezott about the calls the department gets and learned the number of calls to rental properties are disproportionate to the number of calls involving owner-occupied properties. "That's where the calls are coming from, rental properties. The facts are the facts," Whitehill said. That disproportion can lead to increased costs for cities and that is what the Better Landlord program tries to reduce, according to Mark Kubricky, the director of Business Development for Better Landlord. "Better Landlord is a program that maintains and improves housing standards by engaging landlords to comply with local ordinances, implement effective screening / leasing policies, and diversifying properties while lowering their utilization of municipal services," the website at betterlandlord.us said. Kubricky explained the first step in establishing a program would be a disproportionate impact study to determine the mix of rental properties and owner-occupied properties and the amount of city services being used by both, such as police, fire or housing department calls for nuisances or violations. He said it has been shown that a more educated rental population means less crime and less consumption of city resources, leading to better-tended properties, stronger neighborhoods and ultimately less cost for the city. For the landlords, he said the program can lead to better tenants which leads to better payment of rent.

Some examples of Nuisance call laws

Victims’Dilemma: 911 Calls Can Bring Eviction

Law to Clean Up ‘Nuisances’ Costs Innocent People Their Homesand in Ohio

Niles police tackle nuisances with ordinance
Columbus has yet to hold landlords’ feet to fire over bad tenants
Apartment manager challenges Cincinnati's nuisance ordinance










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