By Amy Sechrist
Nuisance property ordinances are not a new concept, but their continued prevalence and persistence across the United States has many unintended consequences. So, what exactly is a nuisance ordinance? This short explainer will provide an overview of these challenging policies and what can be done to lessen their effects.
Nuisance property ordinances are part of a larger trend known as “third-party policing”, where the responsibilities for maintaining law and order are assigned to non-police actors—in this case, to landlords. These ordinances include “local laws and policies that penalize landlords and tenants when police are called too many times to the premises within a certain time period, or for certain activity occurring at the property” (Williams & Cook-Thajudeen, 2018). Simply put, a nuisance property ordinance punishes a property owner if a tenant calls the police or has the police called on them too much. By punishing the property owner, these laws usually result in the eviction of the “problem” tenant.
Under these laws, there is little reason for landlords to work with tenants to address issues. Instead, eviction is incentivized—in one study of landlords who received nuisance citations, 83% evicted or threatened to evict the offending tenants (Desmond & Valdez, 2012). Many nuisance ordinances do not make exceptions for calls made by those who require police or emergency assistance, even in cases of domestic violence. As a result, landlords may pressure tenants to not to contact the police, even in an emergency situation.
Nuisance ordinances are active in both urban and rural communities across the United States. They are normally passed at the municipal level, and as a result vary in how they are structured, what they prohibit, and how they are enforced. The local nature of these laws also makes them incredibly difficult to track at the state or national level.
In their ground-breaking study of Milwaukee nuisance citations, Matthew Desmond and Nicol Valdez found that domestic violence was the third most common reason for a nuisance citation. Domestic violence calls comprised 3.9% of all 911 calls during their period of study, but made up 15.7% of nuisance citations (Desmond & Valdez, 2012). This suggests that domestic violence-related incidents may be more likely to result in nuisance citations and evictions.
Nuisance ordinances negatively impact victims of domestic violence in many ways, including:
- Placing responsibility on the victim for ending their own abuse
- Discouraging reporting of abuse
- Exacerbating existing housing barriers including evictions
As stated in the 2016 guidance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the only way to prevent the harmful effects of nuisance ordinances is to either prevent their creation, or where they already exist, repeal them completely. Partial solutions, such as domestic violence exceptions in existing ordinances, can help reduce the harm created by these laws, but do not completely protect domestic violence survivors. While these solutions appear to be a step in the right direction, they are difficult to enforce as they require the accurate identification of domestic violence and do not account for the complex nature of abuse.
Due to the local nature of nuisance ordinances, it is extremely difficult to track where these laws have been implemented and their comprehensive effects. Several legal cases have been brought against such ordinances but all have settled before trial, including cases in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and New Hampshire. The National Housing Law Project and the American Civil Liberties Union have both dedicated resources informing the public of these laws and providing support for domestic violence survivors, including a survey where victims can report if they have been evicted or pressured with eviction by their landlords under a nuisance ordinance.
Nuisance ordinances were not created to target victims of domestic violence, but current research indicates that the effects of these laws can be life threatening. By criminalizing the use of emergency services, nuisance ordinances don’t make our communities safer—they just punish victims.
About the Author: Amy Sechrist is a first year Master’s candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC-Chapel Hill with a concentration in Housing and Community Development. Her research interests include affordable housing, planning for equity, and the intersection of gender and planning.
Desmond, M., & Valdez, N. (2012). Unpolicing the Urban Poor: Consequences of Third-Party Policing for Inner-City Women. American Sociological Review, 78(1), 117–141. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122412470829
Williams, R., & Cook-Thajudeen, A. (2018). Nuisance and Crime-Free Ordinances/Policies: Protections for Survivors of Domestic and Sexual Violence. National Housing Law Project.