Reducing the Human Cost of Being "Crime-Free": How and Why Local Governments Should Rethink Their Nuisance and Crime-Free Laws

Reducing the Cost of Crime FreeIt’s time for local governments to seriously consider the human and legal costs associated with local crime-free and nuisance property ordinances that regulate rental housing, landlords, and tenants.  The Shriver Center’s 2013 report, The Cost of Being “Crime-Free”: Legal and Practical Consequences of Crime Free Rental Housing and Nuisance Property Ordinances, outlined the serious harm to tenants and landlords caused by these ordinances and the potential liability of local municipalities who enforced them. Yet, in spite of the report’s findings and litigation across the country over these ordinances, nearly 2,000 local governments continue to enforce crime-free and nuisance property ordinances around the country.  Each time we urge a local government not to pass a crime-free or nuisance property ordinance, we are asked, “What can be done to keep our communities safe and landlords accountable for the condition of their rental housing?”

Local governments should question if their communities are actually safer as a result of these ordinances. A common hallmark of many ordinances is a provision linking ordinance enforcement to calling the police. In short, tenants and landlords are penalized, through evictions and monetary fines, because the police have been called for help “too many times.” These provisions directly discourage tenants and landlords from calling the police, leaving them to deal on their own with crime or unsafe conditions. This is a particularly serious problem for victims of domestic violence, who need to call the police to be safe from abuse. Local governments have essentially armed perpetrators with a tool that may seriously endanger the lives of their victims and others. As a result, states like Illinois have taken steps bar local governments from enacting or enforcing ordinances that punish victims of domestic or sexual violence or persons with disabilities for calling the police.

We also must recognize the racial implications of these laws, particularly in segregated, gentrifying, or predominately white communities. The racial bias of the criminal justice system is well documented, and incidents often begin with a police call from someone suspicious of a family of color on their block. Thus, local governments may have unwittingly armed discriminatory private citizens with a tool to maintain or change the racial and ethnic makeup of their neighborhood. Given the U.S. Supreme Court decision this past summer upholding disparate impact as a theory of liability under the federal Fair Housing Act, local governments need to understand that they can be held liable for policies that have a disparate impact on one or more protected classes, unless those policies are justified as necessary to achieve an important municipal objective that could not be achieved with a less discriminatory effect. 

Municipalities have a variety of options for creating healthy, safe communities without harming landlords and tenants or facing potential liability. Our new report with our partner, Open Communities, offers several alternatives to crime-free and nuisance property ordinances, including landlord registration, a hotline for tenants to complain about building or other unsafe conditions, a regular inspection of rental properties (with required notice and consent to entry by tenants), training for landlords and local governments on civil rights and landlord tenant law, and the employment of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design principles.  The focus here is not on evicting tenants because they called the police or because the police were suspiciously called on them, but on maintaining healthy, safe, and inclusive communities. 

We urge local governments that elect to maintain their ordinances to track and annually assess whether the ordinance’s enforcement is adversely harming protected classes, such as women, families, racial and ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities. This assessment requires a local government to speak directly to community stakeholders about their experiences with the ordinance, to track the enforcement of the ordinance and its impact on tenants and landlords, and to measure any violation of local, state, and federal law as a result of the ordinance. This assessment tool is consistent with the existing obligation of local jurisdictions who receive federal housing and community funds to affirmatively further fair housing. At a much more fundamental level, it is also consistent with our values as a nation.          

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