Tuesday, October 4, 2016

When Violence Becomes a Nuisance

Imagine for a moment being a victim of domestic violence and…
… your landlord tells you that the next time you need to call 911 to escape your abuser, you need to leave your house and go down to the corner store to do make the call.
… the police officer who has responded for the second time that night tells you that the next time you call 911, your property will be flagged as a nuisance property and your landlord will have to go to a hearing.
…. your landlord tells you that you are being evicted because you called 911 too many times and the landlord was fined for having a nuisance property.

All of these situations have happened to St. Louis domestic violence victims due in part to the Nuisance Property Ordinance.

What is a nuisance property?
According to Chapter 15.42 of the St. Louis Code of Ordinances, “A ‘Nuisance’ is a continuing act or physical condition which is made, permitted, allowed or continued by any person or legal entity, their agents or servants or any person or legal entity who aids therein which is detrimental to the safety, welfare or convenience of the inhabitants of the City or a part thereof, or any act or condition so designated by statute or ordinance.” 

This is commonly used to describe properties that are used for drug sales, prostitution, illegal firearms sales, and/or illegal gambling that require repeated contact by law enforcement and thus considerable public resources. Repeated contact may mean as few as 3 calls to 911 in a 12-month period.

What are the consequences of being a nuisance property?
If a property is flagged as a nuisance, a notice is sent to the owner or landlord and they are given 30 days to remedy the problem. If the situation is not remedied, the landlord or owner will be given a hearing after which, if found guilty of maintaining a nuisance, they may face a fine and up to 90 days in jail with escalating punishments for each additional offense. One way that landlords and owners may abate the nuisance is by evicting or removing the tenants of the property.

What does this have to do with domestic violence?
Domestic violence victims who have to call 911 on their abuser multiple times may get caught up in the nuisance property process. This means their landlords may face punishment and the victims may face eviction. Currently, the City Police Department’s Problem Properties Unit along with Aldermen and the City Counselor’s Office attempt to cull the domestic violence calls from the problem properties list to prevent them from being identified as nuisance properties.

Why is this important?
Domestic violence is one of the most under-reported crimes. Estimates range from 50%-80% of domestic violence incidents going unreported to police. Anything like the nuisance property ordinance that is perceived to punish domestic violence victims for repeatedly calling for help may decrease the likelihood of reporting and delay victims’ access to services and escape from the situation. 

Furthermore, with the demand for domestic violence shelter beds far outstripping the available supply, finding emergency housing for a victim facing eviction is a difficult task especially without the assistance of a trained victim advocate. Victims may also be denied future housing if their past landlords report that they created a nuisance in previous housing. Even if the cases are being removed from the nuisance list, however, there is still a lot of misinformation by landlords and the public that results in threats or evictions even when the nuisance ordinance does not apply.

What can be done?
The first step that advocates suggest is to formalize the exception to the nuisance property ordinance. Such a bill has been introduced as Board Bill #151, introduced by Ald. Megan Green and cosponsored by Ald. Sharon Tyus, Ald. Christine Ingrassia, Ald. Jeffrey Boyd, Ald. Scott Ogilvie, and Ald. Lyda Krewson. This would add language to the ordinance that “Notwithstanding any other provisions in this Section, a public nuisance does not exist solely: A. as a result of calls to alw enforcement officer of agencies for assistance in regards to alleged domestic violence. B. due to incidents of domestic violence.” This is not the only language that could be used, but it is a compromise that is currently before the Board of Aldermen that deserves serious consideration.

If the domestic violence cases are being removed from the list, why change anything?
This is the "if it ain't broke" like of argument. The exception for domestic violence victims, however, is not officially written into the statute. This process depends on police officers and government officials voluntarily excluding domestic violence cases from the nuisance property laws. As personnel or opinions change, however, this practice could be eliminated without explicit statutory language to mandate its continuation.

What comes next?
Changing the nuisance ordinance alone will not remedy the misinformation that the general public, landlords, and tenants have about the process. The Problem Properties Unit of the Police Department, domestic violence agencies, Aldermen, and neighborhood groups would all be well-served to develop and maintain educations programs to refute the misinformation about the nuisance ordinance and to notify victims and landlords of their rights and responsibilities.

What about other victims of violence?
Domestic violence victims are not the only victims who may be caught up in the nuisance ordinance. In September 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released suggestions for new protections for victims who need to access 911 services. These state that nuisance ordinances that punish victims for calling 911 may violate the Fair Housing Act to the extent that they are disproportionately applied to women, the most common victims of domestic violence. 

Further, HUD goes on to suggest that jurisdictions should repeal or revisit nuisance ordinances that implicitly encourage evictions or other sanctions for victims of domestic violence and other crime victims for using 911 services. Depending on the success of formally excluding domestic violence victims from the nuisance ordinance, St. Louis should next evaluate whether their ordinance similarly burdens victims of other types of crime and exempt them as well. 

LAAW Programs of CVAC serve thousands of domestic violence victims annually regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. If you or someone you know has been a victim of domestic violence, please call CVAC at 314-652-3623. 

Comments by Jessica M., Director of Advocacy and Community Services

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