NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Municipal laws in many American towns and cities aimed at ridding neighbourhoods of disruptive tenants are discouraging domestic violence victims from calling for help, according to a report in the New York Times.
Called "nuisance property" or "crime-free housing" ordinances, these local laws mandate that landlords must evict tenants if police have received 911 emergency calls to a rental home more than three times in four months. Rental properties account for a large share of 911 calls, according to the Times report.
Designed to remove drug dealers and other troublesome residents, stablilise neighbourhoods and reduce repeated calls to police, the measures have had a chilling effect on victims of domestic violence who find themselves caught between calling for help and risking losing their homes, according to legal aid workers and experts on housing and poverty.
A recent study of such ordinances in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by sociologists Matthew Desmond of Harvard University and Nicol Valdez of Columbia University, found that one-third of the citations issued involved domestic violence and that “rentals in largely black areas were disproportionately singled out,” according to the Times.
In Pennsylvania, the situation faced by tenant Lakisha Briggs exemplifies the stark choice faced by many women threatened with violence, the Times reported. Briggs had already called the police numerous times when her boyfriend had threatened her and she had been warned that one more call would trigger eviction.
So when her boyfriend arrived at her door, after being released from jail following a previous altercation with her, Briggs felt she had no choice but to let him in.
“If I called the police to get him out of my house, I’d get evicted,” said the 34-year-old nursing assistant and mother of a toddler. “If I physically tried to remove him, somebody would call 911 and I’d be evicted,” she told the Times.
But as she feared, her boyfriend got drunk. He then slashed her head and neck with a broken ashtray. Despite her pleas not to call the police, neighbours called 911 and city officials ordered her landlord to evict her within 10 days or lose his rental license.
In the case of battered and threatened women, ACLU lawyer Sandra Park said: “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 … They limit people’s ability to seek help from police and punish victims for criminal activity committed against them.”
Although domestic violence victims tend to be women, men have also been evicted under the nuisance ordinances even when they were not at home. Disruptive roommates have caused neighbours to make 911 calls summoning police to the property.