For seven months, Nancy Markham’s now ex-boyfriend visited violence on her in her apartment in Surprise, Arizona. “He choked me, punched me, threatened me with weapons,” she said on a call with press on Thursday. She repeatedly called the police for protection, but when he didn’t flee and evade them he was often simply released.
Instead, Markham found that she was the one who ended up punished. In September of last year, her property manager told her that she had to leave her apartment. When she asked why, she was told it was because she had called the police too many times. She quickly found out that Surprise has a so-called nuisance ordinance that penalizes landlords with potential revocation of their license or other measures if there are four calls to police in 30 days at a given property, or two or more criminal activities at any time. To avoid penalties, landlords almost always simply evict the tenant that has been deemed a nuisance.
“My ex was not arrested for punching and choking me for several months,” she said. “I never did anything wrong as a renter, I paid my rent on time and obeyed the rules. The only crime that ever occurred on my property was domestic violence and my calls to police.”
Her experience has left a deep mark. “I no longer call the police in Surprise because of the law,” she said. “Even if I am in a dangerous situation, I will think twice, maybe four times before calling the police.”
“Nobody should have to face the impossible choice between her safety and her home,” she concluded, her voice breaking slightly.
A lawsuit is trying to make sure that wish becomes a reality. On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the law firm Aiken Schenk filed a suit in federal court against the town of Surprise, Arizona, claiming the ordinance violated Markham’s constitutional rights, including the First Amendment right of petition to contact governmental entities. Surprise has not yet responded to the lawsuit.
But the problem isn’t limited to Arizona. Ordinances like the one in Surprise exist in all regions of the country. There is no official count of how many there are, although advocates believe they are incredibly widespread. “We’ve documented hundreds,” Sandra Park, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s women’s rights project, told ThinkProgress. “It’s safe to say they’re in the thousands.” Part of what makes them so tricky is that they are hyper-local, passed by councils in small towns and cities, and can go by a variety of different names. But they keep coming. “We hear about them being proposed in states all the time,” Park said.
What is clear is the damaging impact they have when they’re put in place. “We know that in those communities, the biggest category of police calls are about domestic violence,” Park said. “So as soon as you start putting arbitrary limits on the number of police calls, you are going to be hurting domestic violence survivors.”
The ordinances get the abuse backward. “It’s like saying if somebody gets burglarized they’re going to be kicked out of their house,” said Penny Venetis, executive vice president and legal director at the advocacy organization Legal Momentum. “If you’re the victim of a crime, how could you possibly be evicted from your house?”
It can have devastating consequences. “Women should not have to choose between being homeless and staying alive or keeping their children alive,” Venetis said. But “really that’s the choice you’re forcing them to make.”
One particular lawsuit over an ordinance in Norristown, Pennsylvania gained widespread attention. It was filed by the ACLU on behalf of Lakisha Briggs, a survivor of abuse. Briggs had already been given three strikes in 2012 for calling the police under the town’s ordinance, two of which were due to the violence visited on her by her boyfriend. So when her boyfriend showed up another time and assaulted her in her apartment, leaving her with a four-inch wound in her neck, she refused to call the police for fear of eviction. Even so, a neighbor called and she was taken to the hospital, only to be told by her landlord three days later that she had ten days to vacate her apartment.
Briggs won a $495,000 settlement last year. The town also repealed its ordinance and promised not to pass any others.
But her story is instructive of what happens to many victims who live under these ordinances. “Sometimes [victims] refrain from calling the police for fear of eviction, sometimes they’ll just be evicted,” explained Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV).
Getting evicted is difficult for anyone, but especially for people experiencing violence and abuse, as they are even less likely to be able to quickly procure a new place to live. The vast majority experience financial abuse alongside the physical abuse, which means they may lose jobs when abusers interfere with them, may not have good credit, and may not have the funds for a down payment. Meanwhile, there is very little affordable rental stock in the country to begin with. “All of those things, in addition to being a victim of physical abuse and medical bills and the like, compound to create severe difficulty in obtaining housing,” Gandy said. “So when a survivor has housing, she works pretty hard to keep it.”
If she loses it and can’t find a new place quickly, she may simply end up homeless given how little emergency shelter is available. In its most recent annual census, NNEDV reported that more than 4,300 people seeking emergency shelter are turned away from domestic shelters and organizations because of a lack of space on a given day. On top of that, 79 programs had to reduce or eliminate transitional housing over the last year and 122 cut back on help putting people in motels or hotels. Nearly 40 percent of domestic violence victims will experience homelessness at some point in their lives.
Some states are taking action to change course on ordinances that put victims at risk of eviction, however. Late last week, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) signed a unanimously passed law that bans cities and towns in the state from passing ordinances that punish landlords and tenants for making calls to the police in response to domestic and sexual violence or on behalf of someone with disabilities. “This ordinance will go a long way, we hope, toward protecting people,” said Lorie Chaiten, director of the reproductive rights project at the ACLU of Illinois, which helped work on the passage of the bill.
Illinois was one state that already had a large number of these supposed “crime-free” ordinances. In 2013, the Shriver Center documented more than 100 municipalities there that had passed them, which was a non-exhaustive list. But under the new law, people can file lawsuits and get injunctions against them. The ACLU of Illinois plans to do work on its own to make sure it has teeth. “We hope to be in communication with communities that, if the law were in effect, would currently be in violation,” Chaiten said. “We intend to do as much public education around this as we can to try to encourage municipalities to quickly change their laws.”
Illinois’s new law comes after Pennsylvania passed a similar law late last year. As of 2013, 25 states and DC had laws that could theoretically protect a victim of domestic violence from eviction because she called the police. But they range from being very weak to robust: in North Carolina, for example, housing discrimination against tenants is simply prohibited based on status as a victim of violence, compared to Minnesota and Texas, which specifically prohibit landlords from interfering with victims calling the police.
The ACLU hopes to see more. “We are pushing some more bills in other states and hope in the next term those can get enacted,” Park said.
Action from states like Pennsylvania and Illinois could help pave the way. “If one state does it, it’s easier for another state to do it,” Venetis said. “When things like this happen it’s like a domino effect.”