Who Are You Calling a Nuisance?: How Nuisance Ordinances Discriminate Against Families With Children

The housing crisis in the United States has garnered increasing attention over the past few years, and recent studies have begun to plumb millions of eviction records to understand the full scope of the problem. Displacement—and housing injustice in general—is a complex issue with diverse causes, including failure of national leadership. But housing injustice can also be traced, on some level, to local laws. Among such laws, nuisance ordinances are increasingly recognized as drivers of housing instability and discrimination that disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities.

But so far, scant research has been done on the often devastating impact of nuisance ordinances on low-income families with children.

Nuisance ordinances—also called crime-free housing ordinances—are municipal laws that penalize landlords for the conduct of their tenants. When housing units receive a certain number of calls to the police, they are designated as nuisance properties and property owners are fined unless they can “abate the nuisance.” The most common means of nuisance abatement is eviction.

Nuisance ordinances have been enacted in big cities and small towns throughout the country as part of efforts to transfer the costs of policing onto private third parties. The majority of nuisance citations occur in predominantly black neighborhoods and women are disproportionately affected by these measures.

Among civil rights activists, there is a growing chorus of criticism arguing that these laws undermine public safety by unfairly punishing the victims of domestic violence for seeking police protection. Nuisance laws force those who experience abuse into the unhappy position of either reporting violence and losing their housing or remaining silent and enduring abuse at home. The ACLU is currently challenging many of these laws on those grounds, among others.

But very little attention has been paid to the ways nuisance laws harm families with children by perpetuating cycles of poverty, pitting parents against their kids, and feeding segregation.

Children are among the strongest predictors of housing instability. One study has shown that neighborhoods that have more children experience more evictions, and of tenants who appear in housing court, those with children are much more likely to be evicted. Indeed, the study found that the presence of children in the household is more important to understanding how evictions are distributed than race, gender, or class. These evictions put greater material hardship on parents, drive families into more disadvantaged neighborhoods with greater crime and environmental hazards, and undermine social cohesion in neighborhoods.

Nuisance ordinances play a role in pushing families out of their homes by slapping parents with citations when police are called on their children. Often, the citations are for things like skipping school, breaking curfew, or delinquency charges. These charges are symptomatic of over-policing in communities of color, where youth are arrested at much higher rates than their white counterparts. In some cases, mere accusations of wrongdoing on the part of a child can lead to a family’s eviction.

By punishing parents for their children’s conduct, nuisance laws force many parents to make Solomonic decisions: to keep their families together and face eviction and possibly homelessness, or to kick out one’s child but remain in one’s home. In this way, nuisance laws contribute to the disruption of family ties and the weakening of social bonds.

Nuisance laws have also been manipulated by municipalities and their residents to drive minority families out of predominantly white neighborhoods, exacerbating residential segregation. In many municipalities, racist anxiety among white residents led to the passage of many of the nuisance ordinances and efforts were made to enforce the laws in order to deter and force out residents who were seen as “undesirable”—namely, racial minorities. For example, in Lancaster, California, white residents organized to pass a nuisance ordinance and formed a neighborhood commission to oversee nuisance complaints. City officials then directed police enforcement to monitor so-called issues, among which were truant or misbehaving children of color. Eventually, landlords stopped renting to minority mothers.

Despite the devastating impact of these laws on families and children, and the patently discriminatory ends to which they are used, very little is being written on how nuisance laws are used to criminalize children and punish parents. But without a more fulsome understanding of how local nuisance laws interact with children and youth, we will never understand the full scope of the United States’ current eviction crisis.

Written by

Jeremy is a first year student at Harvard Law School. He grew up in Montreal, Canada and graduated from Tufts University in 2014. At Harvard, Jeremy is involved with the Tenant Advocacy Project, Child and Youth Advocates, and Y2Y Harvard Square. This summer, he will be working at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia's Family Advocacy Unit. Follow him on Twitter @jravinsky

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