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Nuisance laws penalize residents for 911 calls

Ginger Christ | November 10, 2017

CLEVELAND, Ohio – A bleeding Euclid woman ran to her neighbor’s house after being attacked by her boyfriend.

A Bedford resident was worried her boyfriend was suicidal. A few months earlier, he had threatened to kill himself.

A young man in Lakewood overdosed on heroin twice within a span of a few weeks.

In each of these cases, someone punched in the numbers 9-1-1 on a telephone.

And in each of these situations, cases of domestic violence and mental health, such calls for help were deemed a “nuisance” by the city in which they took place. Those involved were fined or, in some cases, evicted.

In Cuyahoga County, more than 20 communities have what are known as criminal activity nuisance ordinances (CANOs). These laws penalize property owners for repeated requests for emergency or police response, even if those calls involve domestic violence or mental health issues.

After so many strikes, cities declare properties nuisances and assess fines unless the problem is remedied. In many cases, this means evicting the tenant responsible for the 911 calls.

Designed to give cities a legal route to manage what they consider problem properties or residents, the nuisance laws disproportionately affect renters, people of color, survivors of domestic violence and those experiencing mental health crises, a new study by Cleveland State University students and researchers finds.

“Faced with the threat of fines, eviction or other penalties, residents may avoid reaching out to police for assistance in times of crisis – an action which can carry grave consequences,” the report reads.

The report, “What is a Nuisance: Criminal Activity Nuisance Ordinances in Ohio,” analyzes the CANOs in four cities in Cuyahoga County – Bedford, Euclid, Lakewood and Parma – over a period of a few years. At the time of the study, all four had CANOs that included domestic violence; however, Euclid and Parma have since amended their ordinances.

Euclid City Council made the decision to change the ordinance, which initially was enacted to limit issues like public intoxication, barking dogs and loitering, after hearing a presentation made by CSU students involved in the report.

“The reason to remove domestic violence as a nuisance condition is that it could prevent a domestic violence victim from calling the police for fear that they may lose housing if their property is deemed a nuisance,” said Kelley Sweeney, Euclid’s law director.

Carrie Pleasants, executive director of the Housing Research & Advocacy Center, said nuisance ordinances raise concerns about race, domestic violence and renting.

“It’s certainly a fair housing issue,” Pleasants said. “Our biggest concern on its face is the domestic violence. They could end up being evicted for that, losing their housing. It’s really adding insult to injury; you’re re-victimizing the woman.”

Incidences of domestic violence are three times more likely to occur when a woman is living in a rental home, and women of color and immigrant women experience a proportionately greater share of the abuse, Pleasants said.

In each of the cities studied by CSU, more than half of the nuisance letters sent involved renters. In Parma, that number was as high as 89 percent.

Mayfield Heights, which was not included in the report, established its CANO to “afford some control over rental properties by holding the landlord responsible for the actions of their tenants,” Mayor Anthony DiCicco said.

“Keeping the domestic violence calls as one of the types of nuisance calls would create a barrier between the victim and police,” DiCicco said. “Domestic violence is already under-reported, and this would give the abusers more power as they know there is no reason to stop.”

That was exactly the case in Norristown, Pennsylvania, where the city tried to evict a woman for repeated instances of domestic violence in her home. Her abuser knew law enforcement had told her she had used up all of her “strikes” and could no longer call 911. He stabbed her in the neck, and she had to be airlifted to the hospital.

Similar cases happen in Cuyahoga County. Women are evicted for calling the cops on their abusers. Men are evicted for calling for help for overdoses and drug addiction. Group homes are fined when adults with disabilities are injured and need assistance.

In Lakewood, an average of 2.7 unique nuisance letters are sent per month, according to the report. In Bedford, 2.6. In Euclid, 1.9. In Parma, 1.6. Depending on the city, at least 20 percent of those letters involve domestic violence calls and at least 9 percent concern drug overdoses.

Just the facts

  • In Cuyahoga County, more than 20 communities have what are known as criminal activity nuisance ordinances.
  • Nuisance laws penalize property owners for repeated requests for emergency or police response, even if those calls involve domestic violence or mental health issues.
  • Designed to give cities a legal route to manage what they consider problem properties or residents, the nuisance laws disproportionately affect renters, people of color, survivors of domestic violence and those experiencing mental health crises.
  • In the cities studied, at least 20 percent of nuisance letters sent involve domestic violence calls and at least 9 percent concern drug overdoses.
Ohio towns have been using so-called “nuisance ordinances” to make landlords evict tenants who call 9-1-1 for help with domestic violence, drug overdoses and mental health crises, according to a new study by a team of researchers from Cleveland State University and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The researchers found a high number of ‘nuisance letters’ to landlords cited domestic violence and drug overdoses in four towns where they examined case records. Parma and Euclid and a handful of other cities changed their ordinances in 2016 to exclude domestic violence.
Nuisance ordinances have proven particularly popular in Northeast Ohio. The research team focused on cities, but also included a smattering of villages that have adopted nuisance ordinances. This listing may not include all villages with nuisance ordinances, or cities that adopted nuisance ordinances in 2017.
Ohio towns began adopting nuisance ordinances around 2003. While several municipalities have amended their nuisance ordinances to protect domestic violence victims, researcher Joseph Mead said that, to the best of the team’s knowledge, none have repealed their nuisance ordinances altogether.

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