The Utilization of Crime-Free and Public Nuisance Laws in the U.S.
In various communities throughout the United States, efforts have been made for years to combat crime, gang activity, and neighborhood disturbances by implementing “crime-free” or “public nuisance” ordinances that empower landlords to remove tenants when law enforcement or emergency services are frequently called to their properties. These policies have come under scrutiny for being ineffective and disproportionately affecting marginalized communities, particularly people of color. Recently, these ordinances have also been criticized for contributing to mental health discrimination.
The U.S. Department of Justice made a groundbreaking ruling last November, declaring that a Minneapolis suburb’s enforcement of a crime-free law violated the rights of individuals with mental health disabilities. This decision has sparked a reconsideration of similar laws in other jurisdictions, leading to calls for reform or outright repeal.
Understanding the Nature of Crime-Free and Nuisance Ordinances
These anti-crime and nuisance ordinances have been in existence for decades and are widely utilized across the country. According to the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, over 2,000 cities in the U.S. have adopted such laws since the 1990s, and the International Crime Free Association reports that at least 3,000 cities worldwide have implemented similar measures.
Under these ordinances, landlords are held accountable for the actions of their tenants, facing penalties or the loss of rental licenses if they fail to address behaviors deemed as public nuisances, such as drug-related activities or suspected criminal behavior. Landlords may also be required to screen potential tenants and restrict the number of occupants in a rental property. However, the specific provisions of these ordinances vary significantly, from the behaviors targeted to how enforcement is carried out and the consequences for non-compliance. Many ordinances are ambiguous about what constitutes a public nuisance.
For example, the “Crime Free Housing” ordinance in Anoka, Minnesota covers issues such as excessive noise, “unfounded calls to police,” and maintaining a “physically offensive condition.” While the ordinance identifies disorderly conduct, criminal behavior, and acts that endanger others as nuisance calls, it fails to clearly define terms like “unfounded calls” or “physically offensive conditions.” Critics argue that these vague terms have been used to discriminate against certain groups within the community.
Challenges and Concerns with Crime-Free Laws
Federal fair housing laws prohibit landlords from inquiring about an individual’s disability, including mental health disabilities, or using that information as a basis for denying rental opportunities. However, many crime-free ordinances compel landlords to assess rental applicants based on criteria related to emergency calls or questionable behavior, often leading to discriminatory practices. Additionally, some jurisdictions share details about these calls with landlords, which can negatively impact an individual’s housing prospects.
In a concerning case in Hesperia, California, a resident was forced to vacate her home and seek temporary housing in a motel after seeking assistance for her boyfriend experiencing a mental health crisis. This incident resulted in a federal lawsuit, highlighting the detrimental effects of stringent enforcement of these laws.
It is imperative for policymakers and communities to reevaluate the impact and implementation of crime-free and nuisance ordinances to ensure that they do not perpetuate discrimination or unfairly target vulnerable populations. As advocacy and legal challenges against these laws gain traction, there is a growing consensus on the need for reform in this area.