In Some Cities, 911 Gets Abuse Victims Evicted


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The New York Times reported a startling story out of Norristown, PA: a woman named Lakisha Briggs, who suffered repeated instances of domestic abuse in her Pennsylvania row house, would be evicted if she called the police even to protect herself from her abuser.

Norristown has a "nuisance property' ordinance, which translates from legalese as police authority to force landlords to evict problem tenants. The law can be used if police are called to a home just three times in four months.

Also known as "crime-free housing," these kinds of ordinances place the responsibility of policing private property in the hands of landlords. According to the Times, the real objective is to convince landlords "to weed out drug dealers and disruptive tenants, [while] the laws aim to save neighborhoods from blight as well as ease burdens on the police."

So when Briggs' abusive boyfriend showed up after a stint of jail time for the last time he laid hands on her, she let him move in. "If I called the police to get him out of my house, I’d get evicted... if I physically tried to remove him, somebody would call 911 and I’d be evicted," she said later.

Briggs is currently challenging the ordinances, but it did not stop her from succumbing to another violent domestic assault. After begging a neighbor not to dial the police, the neighbor called anyway. Even though her boyfriend was sentenced to one to two years in jail, Norristown officials requested that her landlord evict her or lose his license to rent his property. The ACLU helped Briggs convince the city to back down, but the city tried to argue that Briggs had failed to obtain the right protection orders against the boyfriend and against a troubled 19-year-old daughter.

The Times spoke with Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, who recently conducted a study of citations issued to landlords in Milwaukee. The researchers found that domestic violence was involved in almost a third of citations, and that rentals in predominantly black areas were targeted specifically. "These laws threaten citizens’ fundamental right to call on the police for help," he said.

The laws don't just affect battered women; residents of apartments that were simply involved in crime or police calls are also able to be evicted simply because the calls took place. William Zarnoth, a Milwaukee bartender, found himself evicted after his roommates had an argument and a neighbor called the police. Now Zarnoth can't rent a new apartment because he has an eviction on his record.

The eviction problem really only moves troubled tenants out of one neighborhood and into another. A lawyer who works with Legal Action of Wisconsin, April A. Hartman, has said that she really "doubt[s] this policy ends up saving the city money... Milwaukee spends a significant amount of money dealing with the consequences of homelessness and housing instability."

The laws in Minnesota and Milwaukee were only very recently revised to specify that domestic violence is not grounds for eviction, but counselors are warning victims that the police do not always perceive abuse, and victims often remain silent because they can't maintain financial independence or they feel emotionally tied by the abuser.

Read the full New York Times story here.