"Crime Free" But At What Cost?

A New York Times article published over the weekend tells the upsetting story of domestic violence survivor Lakisha Briggs.  Ms. Briggs was forced to sue Norristown, Pennsylvania after the city tried to push her out of her home based on calls made to the police as a result of her abuser’s violence against her.  In doing so, Norristown was actually enforcing a local ordinance that authorized this very outcome.  Because of the municipality’s threats to her housing, Ms. Briggs was too scared call the police when she most needed help and her abuser ended up putting her in the hospital.

The stories of Lakisha Briggs and William Zarnoth that were relayed in the recent Times article are just two examples of how tenant families, landlords, and ultimately the whole community can be harmed by crime free rental housing and nuisance property ordinances that are proliferating among municipalities in Illinois and across the nation.  In a new report titled The Cost of Being “Crime Free”: Legal and Practical Consequences of Crime Free Rental Housing and Nuisance Property Ordinances, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law describes these various harms, and also the legal liability that can follow for municipalities when they pursue these problematic local laws.

Crime free rental housing ordinances and nuisance property ordinances are laws that seek to penalize tenants and landlords for police activity associated with rental properties.  Common elements of these ordinances include mandating that landlords perform criminal background screening of all prospective tenants, requiring landlords to use a “crime free lease” that makes criminal activity by any person connected to a tenant household a basis for eviction (even if the tenants themselves were not involved in or were victims of the crime), and forcing landlords to evict households that generate calls for police service.

These ordinances can actually end up undermining the public safety goal that they are ostensibly meant to serve.  The serious problems that can result from these ordinances include:

  • Causing the eviction of crime victims – especially victims of domestic or sexual violence – because of the crimes committed against them or their efforts to obtain police help;
  • Causing the eviction of persons with disabilities because of behaviors related to their disability;
  • Deterring tenants and landlords from reporting crimes or otherwise reaching out to the police when they need assistance;
  • Increasing homelessness and educational disruption for children;
  • Increasing the number of vacant properties in the community; an
  • Reducing the supply of affordable rental housing.

Municipalities that adopt and enforce these ordinances can end up being liable for housing discrimination, for interfering with efforts to get police help, and for denying due process, among other things.  In addition, municipalities can potentially lose access to certain federal funds that are conditioned on the municipality taking action to “affirmatively further fair housing” by avoiding practices that lead to housing discrimination.

While there are steps that municipalities can take to mitigate the most common problems created by these ordinances, these steps will not be able to completely avoid the harms that can result.  For example, domestic abuse often plays out in complex ways, and so even if an ordinance incorporates some protective language many cases involving victims are likely to fall through the cracks.  The only surefire way for a municipality to eliminate harmful consequences – and the risk of liability that can follow – is to not have such an ordinance in the first place, and to instead focus on utilizing other available tools to improve public safety and the quality of rental housing.


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