Evicting the victim: Part 1, “If I called the police, I’d be evicted”

September 5, 2013 | Affordability, Apartments, Constitution, Domestic violence, Enforcement, Eviction, Families, Gender dynamics, Informality, Landlords, Law, Nuisance ordinance, Regulation, Rental, SROs, Supportive housing, US News

By:David A. Smith


In the realm of law, boundaries are neatly drawn and readily discernible.  Landlords rent to families, and violence in an apartment must of necessity be someone’s fault – either the family’s or the landlord’s.  So broken-windows theory laws like this one, reported in the New York Times (August 17, 2013), appear at first blush to make total sense:


Norristown, Pa. — Over the last 25 years, in a trend still growing, hundreds of cities and towns across the country have adopted nuisance property or “crime-free housing” ordinances.


The police had warned Lakisha Briggs: one more altercation at her rented row house here, one more call to 911, and they would force her landlord to evict her.



Lakisha Briggs, a victim of domestic violence, faced eviction last year under a public nuisance ordinance in Norristown, Pa., that punishes landlords for 911 calls.


As we’ve seen in Boston, there doesn’t even need to be an ordinance, just a mayoral program to label some properties problems because crime is always happening near them. 



I’ve decided you’re a problem


Putting responsibility on landlords to weed out drug dealers and disruptive tenants, the laws aim to save neighborhoods from blight as well as ease burdens on the police.


Unfortunately for the lawmakers, violence in an apartment may not be the landlord’s fault – indeed, landlords are generally precluded from entering residents’ apartments without notice or lease-granted permission, and a landlord is explicitly instructed not to snoop on his or her residents. 



Stop snooping


More than 100 municipalities in Illinois have adopted nuisance property or crime-free property ordinances, said Emily Werth, a lawyer with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago and author of a new report on the effects.


Gwyn Kaitis, director of the Illinois Domestic Violence Helpline, said her group received several calls a month from women facing a choice between safety and housing. On a recent day, she said, a woman with five children called to say that her boyfriend had choked her and she was trying to end their relationship, but that her landlord had told her that if the police were called one more time, he would evict her.


A landlord cannot ordinarily evict a paying tenant without ‘good cause,’ and mere disruption in the apartment is not enough – the landlord gets drawn into having to be both an investigator and a prosecutor despite being legally prohibited from being either.


This kind of ordinance began to spread in the 1980s as communities sought to banish drug centers. They continued to proliferate as large cities like Phoenix and Dallas, and suburban towns like Norristown also sought to halt the flight of residents from crumbling neighborhoods.


Since rental properties account for a large share of 911 calls, more cities began to license landlords and press them to control disruptive tenants, said Michael Buerger, professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.


As usual with affordable housing, the outsiders have their causality backwards.  Apartments are a disproportionate share of disruptive tenants because apartments house poorer people than the average homeowner, and poorer people are much more prone to suffer violence than rich people are.


Unless the cities are ready to ban poverty – bring back the poorhouse, refit the transportation ships – deciding that apartments are to blame is willfully ignorant.


The city does not exist that has no poor people in it.  But like their predecessors from bygone centuries, or even Europeans with the Roma today, these lawmakers decided that if the poor are the problem, well then just get rid of them:



Roma being deported from France


Under Norristown’s “nuisance property” ordinance, a law intended to protect neighborhoods from seriously disruptive households, officials can pressure landlords to act if the police have been called to a rental home three times within four months.


As we saw in the case of Boston landlord Wendy Rist, such an approach blames the landlord for owning property in a tough neighborhood. 


The impetus was understandable, he said, as cities like Minneapolis, where he did research, saw good people driven out by the uncivil behavior of a few.


“It’s a form of mission creep, I suspect,” Mr. Buerger said, of the negative consequences now gaining attention. “I don’t think anyone believes that landlords should be able to ignore a crack house. But after three visits for disorderly conduct — it’s less clear.”


Actually, the issues are clear enough, but the facts could be murky:



It’s not plane at all


Does the landlord have knowledge of (say) a crack house in his or her property?  How would the landlord gain this knowledge, or be permitted to act on it?


Does the landlord have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and an action the landlord could legally take? 


Norristown’s ordinance blames both the tenant and the landlord, without regard to actual facts.



Sentence first! Then the trial!


Norristown’s ordinance leads to disempowerment of poor renters almost as bad as Michael McLaughlin’s slumlord behaviors as executive director of the Chelsea Housing Authority to intimidate residents into silence even though we have since learned they had to put up with rats in their apartments, roaches in their beds, and no hot water to shower or bathe in.


She faced a fearful dilemma, Ms. Briggs recalled, when her volatile boyfriend showed up last summer, fresh out of a jail stint for their previous fight, and demanded to move in.


Anyone who works in affordable housing for any extended period realizes that the work centers around women; whether it’s informal housing in Ahmedabad India, where women are principal breadwinners and home-based workers, frail elderly women who have outlived their husbands,  or single mothers trying to find a way out of their dependency maze, women are the principal clients, and protecting women is always part of the strategy.



Women’s shelter, Atlanta


(The one category of affordable housing dominated by men is permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless, because in my experience ninety percent of them are single men dealing with trauma or substance abuse in some noxious cocktail.)



Women are a minority here: homeless men in New York


“I had no choice but to let him stay,” said Ms. Briggs, 34, a certified nursing assistant, even though, she said in an interview, she worried about the safety of her 3-year-old daughter as well as her own.


Without venturing into the welfare/ dependency/ marriage debate, we can observe factually that very often the women who most need affordable housing assistance are unmarried mothers with small children they had by men who are now threats to their physical and economic wellbeing.


The laws are sometimes forcing victims, especially women facing domestic violence, to choose between calling the police and holding on to their homes, according to legal aid groups and experts on housing and the poor.


That submissiveness and fear is born of having limited choices and being unable to call for the help that formal society thinks its systems are able to provide:


“If I called the police to get him out of my house, I’d get evicted,” she said. “If I physically tried to remove him, somebody would call 911 and I’d be evicted.”


“These laws threaten citizens’ fundamental right to call on the police for help,” said Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Harvard.



Matthew Desmond


The consequences are certainly unintended, but no less inevitable for that.  Lawmakers should be humble enough to recognize that some laws do more harm to some good people than they do good for other good people.


The law may not be an ass but it is a blockhead.



I fought the law and the law won


In a study of citations issued to landlords in Milwaukee, conducted with Nicol Valdez of Columbia University, Mr. Desmond found that domestic violence was involved in nearly one-third of the cases.


For all that the media sensationalize random psychotic violence, you are most likely to be murdered by someone you know well, and probably live with.


In June 2012, days after her ex-boyfriend, Wilbert Bennett, moved into her house in this struggling town northwest of Philadelphia, he started another drunken, late-night argument.


The same laws and leases that keep the landlord out of prying into a tenant’s family life can put the tenant at the mercy of her suddenly violent companion.


[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]