“Nuisance Ordinances,” Domestic Violence, and Fair Housing

August 29, 2016

By Kurt Paulsen, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at UW-Madison. Professor Paulsen studies and teaches housing policy and affordable housing. He will provide occasional blog posts this year connecting the book Evicted to current events and housing policy developments.

One of the more powerful chapters of Evicted is chapter 15, “A Nuisance.”  Cities across the country, including Milwaukee, adopted nuisance property ordinances in the last 20 years as part of anti-crime and anti-drug efforts. These ordinances allowed “police departments to penalize landlords for the behavior of their tenants” (Evicted, p 190) when a large number of 911 calls came from a property. Landlords often responded by evicting tenants, even when tenants were the victims of the crimes.

Desmond tells the story in chapter 15 of how Arleen and her two sons only had 5 days to leave the apartment they shared with Crystal.  Crystal had called 911 when she heard their upstairs neighbor, Trisha, being beat up by Trisha’s boyfriend.  Based on extensive study of nuisance property citations in Milwaukee, Desmond writes, “In the vast majority of cases (83 percent), landlords who received a nuisance citation for domestic violence responded by either evicting the tenants or by threatening to evict them for future police calls.” (p. 191) Victims of domestic violence are therefore made victims again when they either lose their housing or feel unable to call the police for help. Evicted domestic violence survivors often end up homeless or in very unstable housing.

When Arleen and her two sons had to move, schools in Milwaukee were closed because of the extreme cold. Her sons would have to change schools. Again. They would have to stay in temporary homeless shelters until she could find an apartment. A landlord blatantly violated the Fair Housing Act (on p. 290) when she informed Arleen she didn’t want children in the building. Arleen is one of the main characters of Evicted, and the rest of the book describes how these evictions have affected her life.

As part of the research for this book, Matt Desmond analyzed 2 years of nuisance property citations in Milwaukee for 2008 and 2009 (p. 332). He describes how Milwaukee changed its ordinance in 2011 after he showed them his findings (footnote 11, p. 374).  You can read about his study and the ordinance changes in this Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article.

In 2013, the Wisconsin legislature passed Act 76 which increased protections (including against eviction) for victims of domestic violence.  (You can find helpful summaries of these protections for tenants here and landlord responsibilities here.)   Landlords may not evict victims of domestic violence for calling the police.  Landlords must also not retaliate or raise the rent or refuse to renew the lease.  Illinois passed a similar law in 2015.

This week, a group of 29 Senators (led by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken) wrote a letter to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, asking HUD to investigate how local nuisance ordinances might violate the federal Fair Housing Act because they have a disparate impact on women.

The Senators write, “… nuisance ordinances established by local governments across the nation are penalizing victims for calls requesting police protection or emergency assistance for crimes occurring at their homes. In most cases, landlords are forced to evict tenants who made the call for help or face significant fines, loss of rental permits, or property foreclosure. As an unintended consequence, individuals, particularly those who are victims of crime, are being removed from their homes when they are at their most vulnerable. Those victims who choose not to report the criminal activity to the police – for fear of eviction – are prevented from accessing emergency assistance and placed in heightened danger. Moreover, nuisance ordinances have a disproportionate impact on victims of domestic violence by exacerbating housing insecurities that may be unique to survivors and further increasing victims’ likelihood of becoming homeless.”

The federal Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, only one week after the murder of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Fair Housing Act currently prohibits any housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, or disability.  Familial status and disability status were added in 1988.  Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of a “disparate impact” standard in evaluating housing discrimination: whether a regulation or action dis-proportionately impacts a protected class (race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, or disability.)

States and cities may adopt fair housing laws which provide more protection than the federal Fair Housing Act. Wisconsin’s Fair Housing Law (the “Open Housing Law”) adds protected categories based on marital status, ancestry, lawful source of income, sexual orientation, age, and status as victim of domestic abuse, sexual assault, or stalking.

If HUD acts on the Senators’ request, it could issue regulations and/or guidance to local governments to protect victims of domestic violence from nuisance-property evictions. You can read more about this issue here, here, here, and here.


[Note: if you or a loved one feel threatened, unsafe, scared, or abused you should seek assistance.  In Dane County, you can find assistance from Domestic Abuse Information Services here or by calling a 24-hour helpline at 608-251-4445.  The National Domestic Violence Hotline is at here or by calling a 24-hour helping at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).  If you feel you have been the victim of housing discrimination, you can contact the Fair Housing Council (offices in Milwaukee and Madison), the Tenant Resource Center, or the Wisconsin Equal Rights Division.]

Photo © Michael Kienitz