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For Low-Income Victims, Nuisance Laws Force Ultimatum: Silence Or Eviction

Lakisha Briggs, at her house in Norristown, Pa. Briggs, who was being abused by her boyfriend, lodged a legal challenge against her eviction for having the police called too many times to her former residence.
Pam Fessler
Lakisha Briggs, at her house in Norristown, Pa. Briggs, who was being abused by her boyfriend, lodged a legal challenge against her eviction for having the police called too many times to her former residence.

Local communities are increasingly passing laws to control crime and nuisances on rental properties. They do so mostly by limiting the number of times police can be called to a residence. But it turns out that crime victims — especially victims of domestic abuse — are often the ones who end up being penalized.

Lakisha Briggs of Norristown, Pa., was one of those victims. When her boyfriend started abusing her several years ago, her grown daughter called the police. Before leaving, one of the officers warned Briggs that this was her first strike. She couldn't believe what she was hearing.

"He just was like, we just gonna make sure your landlord evict you. And I'm like, my landlord evict me? For what? Like, I didn't even do anything," she recalls.

But Norristown had what's known as a nuisance property ordinance. Her landlord could be fined and have his rental license suspended if police were called to the property more than three times in four months for "disorderly behavior." Unless, that is, he evicted his tenant.

After that first warning, Briggs — who also had a 3-year-old daughter — was reluctant to call the police when her boyfriend beat her up. But one night, when they got into a fight, he slit her neck open with a broken ashtray. When she woke up in a pool of blood, her first thought was not to dial 911.

"The first thing in my mind is let me get out of this house before somebody call," she says. "I'd rather them find me on the street than find me at my house like this, because I'm going to get put out if the cops come here."

But the police did come, when someone saw her bleeding outside. Briggs was airlifted to the hospital. When she returned home several days later, her landlord told her that she had to leave. He said he didn't want to throw her out, but if he didn't, he'd be fined $1,000 a day.

"I think it's almost hard for people to believe that the law would be used in this way," says Sandra Park, a senior attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project. Park says she doesn't think most lawmakers intend for the laws to target victims.

"But unfortunately, we've seen in community after community with these laws, domestic violence victims and other crime victims do get punished, and I think we just need to be aware that this is the reality of what people are experiencing on the ground," she says.

In the Briggs case, the ACLU sued, the federal government filed a fair housing complaint, and the Norristown law was eventually repealed. The state of Pennsylvania also passed a law to protect crime victims.

But Park says similar measures keep popping up — in New York, Arizona, Wisconsin and elsewhere — as local communities try to get a handle on crime and safety. There are likely hundreds of such laws, although no one knows for sure.

Amanda Grieder oversees compliance with a nuisance ordinance in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and says that one problem the city has is that police officers end up being called to the same properties over and over again.

"In addition to making sure that citizens in our city have the ability to live in neighborhoods free of nuisance activity, we also felt the need to recoup some of the costs of taxpayer-funded services," she says.

Under the Cedar Rapids ordinance, landlords can be fined hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for repeated police calls, unless they come up with a plan to abate the problem. Grieder says the city recently revised its statute and is working with social service agencies to make sure crime victims are not penalized in the process.

"No matter what the circumstance, the No. 1 priority is we want you to call police, we want you to report crime," she says. The state of Iowa also has a new law to make sure crime victims are not discouraged from calling for help.

But Park and others say, even with such exceptions, the ordinances can have a chilling effect on tenants, especially those who are low-income with nowhere else to go. Some abusers even use the threat of eviction against their victims, which is what happened to Briggs.

"After he found out that I was on my last and final strike, he kind of just like moved into my house," she says. "It's like, you know, a really messed up situation because it's, OK, at this point, what do I do?"

She definitely did not want to call the police.

Since the Briggs case was settled two years ago, Norristown has taken a new approach to addressing nuisance properties. Municipal administrator Crandall Jones says police and other local agencies now work more closely with residents to try to address the underlying problems that lead to excessive police calls — such as drug trafficking, domestic abuse or mental illness. He says crime has dropped as a result.

"That nuisance issue is really symptomatic and not the issue," says Jones. "When you're dealing with the symptoms and not the real issue, the symptoms are going to continue to reoccur and reoccur."

For her part, Briggs no longer worries about eviction. She now owns her own home.

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Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.