ST. LOUIS, Mo. – The Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council (EHOC), ACLU of Missouri and ACLU Women’s Rights Project called on six cities in St. Louis County to abandon policies known as “nuisance ordinances,” which can lead victims of crime and survivors of domestic violence to be punished or evicted for calling the police.
The requests follow a settlement agreement made with the city of Maplewood. The St. Louis County municipality recently overhauled its nuisance ordinance as part of the agreement in a federal lawsuit brought against the city by the ACLU of Missouri and ACLU Women’s Rights Project.
The cities receiving letters are: Breckenridge Hills, Cool Valley, Florissant, Lakeshire, St. John and University City. EHOC and the ACLU are also seeking public records related to the cities’ use and enforcement of these ordinances.
“Academic studies in the St. Louis area have shown that ‘crime-free’ ordinances like these disproportionately target some of the most vulnerable people in our communities for over-enforcement,” said Kalila J. Jackson, senior staff attorney at EHOC. “Ultimately, these laws have the effect of making our neighborhoods less safe and pushing victims of crime into homelessness. We encourage local leaders to examine the real costs of these nuisance ordinances and take decisive action to truly protect our communities.”
Nuisance ordinances — also called “disorderly house” ordinances or “crime-free” ordinances — label a property as a nuisance when it is the site of a certain number of calls to police or alleged nuisance conduct, a category that can include assault, harassment, stalking, disorderly conduct, and many other kinds of behavior. Such laws usually apply even when a resident was the target, and not the source, of the nuisance activity. Upon citation, property owners typically are instructed to “abate the nuisance” or face steep penalties. Many landlords respond by evicting the tenant, who may be the victim of the crime; refusing to renew their lease; or instructing tenants not to call 911.
“No one should be kicked out of their home because they called law enforcement for assistance,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “We hope these cities choose to help their residents when they call 911 by reforming these ordinances, not continue to jeopardize their safety by keeping these unconstitutional nuisance laws on the books.”
Maplewood’s prior “three strikes, you’re out” ordinance penalized residents who call the police three or more times regarding domestic violence in 180 days. The law endangered victims of crimes and discouraged them from coming forward, putting them at risk of eviction and banishment from the community.
The ACLU and ACLU of Missouri filed the lawsuit in April 2017 on behalf of Rosetta Watson, a domestic violence survivor who was evicted from her home and prohibited from living in the city for six months because she called the police for help. Maplewood’s revised ordinance now includes protections for crime victims and it will no longer enforce its nuisance ordinance to penalize residents based on calls for police or emergency services. The settlement also required Maplewood to provide $137,000 in compensation to Watson.
Today’s letters cite recent examples of lawsuits in Arizona, California, New York and Pennsylvania that successfully stopped enforcement of nuisance ordinances similar to the cities’ policies that threaten tenants with evictions. They also request additional information from the cities through the Sunshine Law about how they have enforced their nuisance ordinances, including any warnings, penalties, fines, or communications issued in relation to the nuisance ordinances in recent years.
“The safety of entire communities is put at risk when people don’t call the police for help because they fear losing the roof over their head,” said Sandra Park, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “It’s time for these St. Louis County municipalities to stop wasting resources enforcing cruel nuisance ordinances and take a stand to protect communities and preserve housing rights.”
Read the letters here.