Jurisprudence

When Your Emergency Is a “Nuisance”

Cities are punishing tenants with disabilities and domestic violence survivors for calling for help.

Two police cars on a residential road.
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Jane*, a resident of Bedford, Ohio, called 911 asking for help because she believed her boyfriend was suicidal. The police responded, wrote a report, and left. But the next day, Jane’s landlord got a fine and a form letter from the town’s chief of police ordering the landlord to stop the 911 calls coming from her home. Bedford had flagged Jane’s home a few months earlier because she had previously called the police when her boyfriend threatened to kill himself. When Jane called again, the city fined her landlord $250. Facing further fines and even a potential misdemeanor charge, the landlord began eviction proceedings against Jane—all because she called for help.

Jane lost her home because Bedford is one of an estimated 2,000 municipalities throughout the United States that penalize households perceived to be “nuisances” under so-called chronic nuisance ordinances (also known as CNOs and “crime-free ordinances”). A household can be defined as a nuisance if it reaches a certain threshold number of nuisance infractions—anything from arrests on the property to suspected sex work to noise complaints. Most of these ordinances will also designate homes as nuisances based on calls to 911—no matter who makes the call. The threshold number of calls varies; for example, in Maplewood, Missouri, it takes just two 911 calls within a 180-day period for a home to be deemed a “nuisance.” Landlords are then encouraged, or even legally required, to “abate the nuisance,” a legal term that effectively means that landlords have to either evict the tenants or stop them from calling 911 for help.

For tenants with mental health needs or disabilities, chronic nuisance ordinances create an impossible choice between risking eviction and forgoing help in a crisis. We spent the past year analyzing police reports and call logs from towns and cities across the Midwest—and we found case after case in which cities use chronic nuisance ordinances to push people with disabilities out of their homes.

Some cities threatened to evict tenants, like Jane, who called for help during a mental health crisis. In another case, Sarah*, a resident of Baraboo, Wisconsin, called the police after her daughter posted on social media that she was engaging in self-harm. The police transferred Sarah’s daughter to a crisis center. A few months later, Baraboo issued a citation to Sarah’s landlord and told him he would be subject to penalties if he did not abate the nuisance—referring to Sarah’s police calls on behalf of her daughter. Bedford, where Jane lives, also declared a property a nuisance after police performed welfare checks (which residents were encouraged to use if they were concerned about a neighbor or relative’s well-being) on a resident who was suicidal and unable to afford medication. The police report states that the officers told the resident to seek treatment and “contact the [police department] if she [was] ever feeling suicidal” again. But Bedford designated her home a nuisance anyway—despite encouraging residents to contact the police for welfare checks. In one Missouri suburb, a tenant who called a mental health hotline after feeling suicidal received a nuisance citation from the city for “generating too many calls for police services.”

These are not just isolated anomalies; our research found that cities frequently weaponize nuisance ordinances against people in need. For example, a lawsuit challenging Maplewood’s ordinance found that at least 25 percent of nuisance enforcement actions stemmed from “obvious manifestations of disability.” Another study found that up to 40 percent of nuisance enforcement in a set of Midwestern cities was related to a person experiencing a drug overdose. Because nuisance ordinances are disproportionately enforced in heavily policed Black and Latinx neighborhoods, people of color with disabilities are especially at risk.

Chronic nuisance ordinances are already widely criticized for silencing domestic violence survivors like Lakisha Briggs, who sued her hometown of Norristown, Pennsylvania, arguing that its nuisance ordinance violates the Constitution and federal law. Local police told Briggs that if she made one more call to 911, the city would make her landlord evict her and her 3-year-old daughter—so when her violent ex-boyfriend showed up and demanded to move back in, she couldn’t call 911 for help. Calls related to domestic violence are the “single largest category of calls” made to the police. One study in Milwaukee found that about a third of nuisance designations were related to domestic violence (and that most were in predominantly Black neighborhoods, demonstrating nuisance laws’ outsize impact on Black women). After a public outcry, the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama issued guidance warning that enforcing nuisance ordinances against domestic violence survivors risked running afoul of the federal Fair Housing Act. At the time, HUD said that it would soon issue similar guidance about nuisance laws and people with disabilities. But three years later, that guidance has yet to be seen.

Municipalities have also targeted group homes and supportive living centers for people with disabilities. South Milwaukee, Wisconsin, declared a living center a chronic nuisance property based on five police calls over the course of three months, including calls by residents seeking medical assistance. Another city’s council discussed using a nuisance ordinance against a group home’s affiliated school to make the school “pay for an off-duty city police officer.”

New York and Illinois have passed legislation that requires towns and cities to amend their ordinances to exempt 911 calls for help related to domestic violence and disabilities, and a handful of cities have adopted those exceptions on their own. These reforms are valuable, but they likely leave many survivors and people with disabilities behind. Nuisance ordinances could still evict people based on arrests that happen on or near the property; local police routinely criminalize interactions with people with disabilities as “disorderly conduct” that can lead to arrests and, therefore, eviction. Domestic violence survivors often say nothing about abuse when the police arrive because they are scared, financially dependent, or unwilling to send abusive partners to prison.

Even when exceptions exist, local police may fail to enforce them. Madison, Wisconsin’s local nuisance ordinance specifically includes an exception for domestic violence—but our open records requests turned up at least eight instances in which citations were issued to homes in Madison based in part on a 911 call related to domestic violence.

Even if cities aren’t intentionally discriminating against them, the ordinances’ disproportionate burden on people with disabilities could still violate legal protections. In the 2015 case Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, the Supreme Court recognized that the Fair Housing Act prohibits policies that have a disparate impact on individuals who belong to a protected class. When chronic nuisance ordinances have an outsize impact on people with disabilities, they may be illegal. Chronic nuisance ordinances may also violate Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that public entities provide public services, including access to emergency medical assistance, without discrimination based on disability. Towns like Bedford may try to defend their nuisance ordinances by saying they enhance public safety—but there’s no evidence at all that they do. Rather, chronic nuisance ordinances put marginalized tenants’ health and safety at risk by evicting people like Jane or deter them from calling 911 in a crisis.

Advocacy groups like the ACLU are also challenging chronic nuisance ordinances under the First Amendment, which protects individuals’ ability “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These lawsuits argue that when residents like Jane and Sarah stop calling 911 because they’re afraid of being evicted under a chronic nuisance ordinance, their First Amendment right to call on the government for help was chilled or denied.

The federal Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to “discriminate in the sale or rental, or to otherwise make unavailable or deny” a home to a person because of their disability, sex, or race. Yet that’s precisely what chronic nuisance ordinances do: They push people, especially people of color, out of their homes because they have a disability or experience gender-based violence. Any city that believes in the FHA’s promise of equal housing access should take nuisance laws off the books—and if they don’t, they may find themselves in court.

*Names have been changed.