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Three strikes
October 3, 2013 10:13 AM   Subscribe

Lakisha Briggs was a victim of domestic abuse, having been beaten unconscious by her boyfriend. When a neighbour called the cops, the boyfriend went to prison for assault. And then the police served notic to her landlord to evict her and her 3-year old son or lose his rental licence. The reason? She'd made three 911 calls in four months and a local Norristown, Pa. police ordinance calls for tenants who do this to be evicted.

This turns out not to be an isolated case. A new study by Matthew Desmond and Nicol Valdez
shows the impact of this sort of socalled third party policing on already vulnerable people (PDF):
Recent decades have witnessed a double movement within the field of crime control characterized by the prison boom and intensive policing, on the one hand, and widespread implementation of new approaches that assign policing responsibilities to non-police actors, on the other. The latter development has been accomplished by expansion of thirdparty policing policies; nuisance property ordinances, which sanction landlords for their tenants’ behavior, are among the most popular. This study, an analysis of every nuisance citation distributed in Milwaukee over a two-year period, is among the first to evaluate empirically the impact of coercive third-party policing on the urban poor. Properties in black neighborhoods disproportionately received citations, and those located in more integrated black neighborhoods had the highest likelihood of being deemed nuisances. Nearly a third of all citations were generated by domestic violence; most property owners abated this “nuisance” by evicting battered women. Landlords also took steps to discourage tenants from calling 911; overrepresented among callers, women were disproportionately affected by these measures. By looking beyond traditional policing, this study reveals previously unforeseen consequences of new crime control strategies for women from inner-city neighborhoods.
Currently the ACLU is suing Norristown over this ordinance, arguing that:
These laws violate tenants’ First Amendment right to petition their government, which includes the right to contact law enforcement. They also violate the federal Violence Against Women Act, which protects many domestic violence victims from eviction based on the crimes committed against them, and the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex.
While Norristown officials argue that "the purpose of the disorderly behavior ordinance is to promote peaceful neighborhoods and discourage frivolous calls to the police."
posted by MartinWisse (70 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Glad to know it's considered frivolous to report crimes to the police.
posted by rtha at 10:20 AM on October 3, 2013 [66 favorites]


I'm all out of vomit, can I borrow some of yours?
posted by The Whelk at 10:21 AM on October 3, 2013 [55 favorites]


This seems to be the relevant ordinance (Norristown Municipal Code § 245-3). I'm no lawyer, but I don't get how they can apply this to her. Any lawyers care to chime in?
posted by cashman at 10:23 AM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


What the fucking hell.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:25 AM on October 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


It seems neighbors could also use this as a proxy eviction as well because Lakisha didn't call the cops herself, her neighbor apparently did, which counts towards the arbitrary number in the eviction law. Or maybe I just didn't understand that part of the situation... but yea, I can see some huge potential for abuse writ large all over this sort of thing.

Also, possibly a dumb question but do medical 911 calls count?

"I'm sorry Ms. Sullivan but you've had too many falls/strokes/whatever in the last X months... You're going to have to move out."

What a effed up way for people to NIMBY people things away.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:25 AM on October 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Sorry, I would just call the cops on you but since I'm up against my quota I'm just going to have to shoot you instead.
posted by planetesimal at 10:27 AM on October 3, 2013 [16 favorites]


Holy shit. I'm dumbfounded.
posted by brundlefly at 10:29 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


This seems to be the relevant ordinance (Norristown Municipal Code § 245-3). I'm no lawyer, but I don't get how they can apply this to her. Any lawyers care to chime in?


As I read it, the relevant subsections are included below. This is not legal advice and I am not anyone's attorney. It would appear that if the cops are called for a domestic disturbance, even if you called yourself, and a mandatory arrest is not required that call counts against your limit.

§ 245-3
Landlords responsible for certain behavior of tenants.

A. It shall be the licensee's responsibility to assure that the tenants, the tenants' family members, and guests of any tenant or tenant's family member not engage in disorderly behavior in the rental dwelling unit. For the purposes of this chapter, "rental dwelling unit" shall include common areas in the building where the rental dwelling unit is located.

B. Disorderly behavior.
(1) For purposes of this § 245-3 only, "disorderly behavior" may include, but is not limited to, the following:

(b) Any call to a rental dwelling unit or units to which the Norristown Police Department responds and which, in the sole discretion of the Chief of Police, involves activity that can be characterized as disorderly in nature, including, but not limited to, the following types of activity:

[5] Domestic disturbances that do not require that a mandatory arrest be made;

(2) Calls to which the Norristown Police Department responds will not be counted for purposes of determining whether a licensee shall be subject to the fines set forth in this § 245-3 where those calls are made by a tenant, a member of a tenant's family or a tenant's guest taking action to seek emergency assistance, unless it is discovered by the Norristown Police Department, upon investigation, that one or more of the acts constituting disorderly behavior set forth in Subsection B(1)(b) above have occurred at the rental dwelling unit(s).
posted by Arbac at 10:29 AM on October 3, 2013


Ah, if cashman's link is right then medical stuff wouldn't apply I think. But the fake calls by pissed neighbors is still a concern in my mind.

Any call to a rental dwelling unit or units to which the Norristown Police Department responds and which, in the sole discretion of the Chief of Police, involves activity that can be characterized as disorderly in nature, including, but not limited to, the following types of activity:
[1] Disorderly conduct;
[2] Public nuisance;
[3] Unlawful use, discharge or possession of a firearm or weapon;
[4] Obstructing the administration of justice;
[5] Domestic disturbances that do not require that a mandatory arrest be made;
[6] Prostitution; and
[7] Intimidation.

posted by RolandOfEld at 10:30 AM on October 3, 2013


Institutionalized class warfare.
posted by Annika Cicada at 10:32 AM on October 3, 2013 [28 favorites]


My favorite, and by favorite I mean most horrifying, part of this statute is this section (emphasis added) "Any call to a rental dwelling unit or units to which the Norristown Police Department responds and which, in the sole discretion of the Chief of Police, involves activity that can be characterized as disorderly in nature, including, but not limited to

So if the Chief of Police thinks you're being disorderly, you are, and it counts against your violation limit! WTF!?
posted by Arbac at 10:33 AM on October 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


un. fucking. believable.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:38 AM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm certain that when they implemented this fine piece of legistation that law enforcement foresaw this issue and made provisions in the way of increased funding for Domestic Violence shelters, training and etc. No? Oh?

Then, what the fuck dude?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:40 AM on October 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


"To serve and protect...but not you, Lakisha. We've helped you enough already."
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:40 AM on October 3, 2013 [31 favorites]


Snitches Get to Live in Ditches
posted by Atom Eyes at 10:42 AM on October 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


in the sole discretion of the Chief of Police, involves activity that can be characterized as disorderly in nature, including, but not limited to, the following types of activity:


Oh, well, that's a relief. No way that can be abused.
posted by tyllwin at 10:46 AM on October 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Dumb rules and policies should be questioned. Incredibly dumb rules and policies should be manually overridden and ignored while the problem is being addressed.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 10:47 AM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Norristown is going to lose so hard. This is what happens when partisanship, entitlement, callousness, and outright idiocy collide.
posted by zippy at 10:48 AM on October 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


un. fucking. believable.

spend some time at your local district court watching anti-harrassment/restraining orders go down. hint: it's a total fuck-show of bad behavior including false accusations, retaliation, revenge, psychosis, deeply dysfunctional behavior, etc., and that's not even getting into women (and some men) getting totally let down by the system.

the last 40 years of economic looting and pillaging have created absolute social chaos amongst classes of people for whom there hasn't been steady employment for a generation. as much a local law enforcement can be pigs, this social chaos has been dropped into their laps to deal with while the professional classes look the other way from a safe distance.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:48 AM on October 3, 2013 [13 favorites]


I have nothing, really, I am spent.

The crabs in the crabbucket just keep crabbing.
posted by Cosine at 11:01 AM on October 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Notice how this law is carefully written to not apply to the rich fucks on the hill who own their homes, their protection under the law just gets to naturally be a bit more equal than that of others.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:02 AM on October 3, 2013 [17 favorites]


Raising victim-blaming to an art form. Well done indeed.
posted by Space Kitty at 11:06 AM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well yes, but it's a law pertaining to rental properties. Poorly thought out, yes, but more because it somehow puts the onus on the landlord to police his tenants for nuisance behavior. WTF?
It is worth noting that the article claims that the police had been out multiple times before and had not seen any signs of abuse.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:07 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I can't fathom a system that punishes citizens for reporting crime to the police.

Or rather, I can, but the scenarios I come up with ("You're messing up our metrics!") are too depressing to contemplate.
posted by Gelatin at 11:07 AM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


2 rules of thumb that have passed the test of time, for me:

1. Chances are very good that, if a person proclaims, "I am not racist", the next words out of his/her mouth will be some horribly racist shit.

2. Zero-tolerance rules are never good.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:09 AM on October 3, 2013 [13 favorites]


It is worth noting that the article claims that the police had been out multiple times before and had not seen any signs of abuse.

Go on...
posted by Cosine at 11:16 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


So all an abuser has got to do is to make sure that 3 calls to 911 have been made from the house during small fights.

After that, he/she can hold the other person hostage under the fear of losing the house if they wanted to get help from police.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 11:20 AM on October 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


It is worth noting that the article claims that the police had been out multiple times before and had not seen any signs of abuse.

Yes, that makes a lot of sense, because low-income minority families love to call the police just to hang out and chat for a while, and police officers never look at a situation and decide they don't care about it enough to bother writing a report.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:21 AM on October 3, 2013 [20 favorites]


Arbac, etc.: if you read a little further in cashman's link to §245-3 you'll find:
H. No tenant shall be evicted or forced to vacate a rental dwelling unit by the Municipality of Norristown for violation of the provisions of this section.
On the other hand, that seems functionally contradicted by the next clause:
I. It is strongly encouraged that all licensees include in their leases language that provides that it is a breach of the lease for a tenant to be convicted for disorderly behavior.
So it's not illegal to call the police if you're a renter, but the city encourages landlords to make calling the police be a violation of the lease.
posted by hattifattener at 11:27 AM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


If the religious right weren't totally co-opted by the national republican party and it's billionaire patrons, they would be setting up local religious courts to deal with these problems the old-fashioned (baseball bats and father knows best) way ala the Taliban or the Lubavitchers...

nothing a little patriarchy can't solve.
posted by ennui.bz at 11:28 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


So if she did have a PFA and kept calling the cops when her abuser violates it, that's somehow her fault?

Also i don't even understand how this doesn't fall under "mandatory arrest". Dude fucking stabbed her in the neck with a broken ashtray.

And she's begging neighbors to not call the cops. I'm gonna guess she's afraid of him and knows a PFA won't help.

Reminds of that Christmas night one year when my friends were having a late evening post-family walk in the snow. We saw a woman get pushed out of a car and somehow her legs went under and got run over. We have no idea how but she was able to walk. She refused to let us call the cops or anyone and walked away.

Maybe she had already gotten her three calls.
posted by sio42 at 11:32 AM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


This sounds like it was put forward by an actuary: ie even if it isn't your fault if you keep having accidents your insurance premium will go up. An annoying, but longstanding, form of victim blaming. Entirely unsuited to the concept of protecting victims of crimes and public safety. This is privatisation of the police force by another name. It treats victims as if they are unwanted risks to the safety of their neighbours and the profit margins of their landlords.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:33 AM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is a pretty awesome law!

In fact, at my hospital's next medical staff meeting, I'm going to propose that we adopt something similar: If a patient seeks medical care more than three times in four months, we get to kill them.
posted by key lime guy at 11:34 AM on October 3, 2013 [13 favorites]


Besides the hideous outcome in the Lakisha Briggs case, what laws like this penalizing landlords for tenants' behavior do is strongly magnify the already deep problem of landlord discrimination based upon biased ideas of what kinds of tenants are "troublesome."

Privatizing law enforcement is a terrible idea on so many levels.
posted by DrMew at 11:35 AM on October 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


Really terrible law.

I'm trying to understand the rationale behind the law. Clearly it's designed to punish people who cause public disturbances and/or people who associate with troublemakers who do. So I can almost see the vague appeal of giving landlords a valid legal excuse (by why obligation!?) to evict, say, habitually obstreperous tenants. Almost.

But why not better distinguishing between troublemaker and victim? Some vague notion that victims are partially responsible for bringing it on themselves, for being the sort to attract trouble, or for not cutting off troublemakers sooner? So following that illogic, they would think it's a good thing she's forced to move because... now she'll have more incentive to cut off contact with the abusive boyfriend for fear of being forced to move again?

Nope, still not seeing it. Pretty sure the fear of being beaten, severely injured, or killed is incentive enough. So instead this comes off like the community saying we don't care if you're assaulted, battered, or killed - we just don't want to hear about it. Terrible.
posted by Davenhill at 11:36 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think it's time to stop searching for logical rationales behind laws and instead ask: who benefits?
posted by gorbweaver at 11:38 AM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Okay, look: there really are two sides to this one.

On one hand, have you guys spent much time in low income housing? Or spent the morning in family business court? It's a complete shitshow. And there are people there who regularly engage in bad behavior which (1) causes untold damages to the properties they're renting, and (2) puts an incredible burden on their neighbors. Loud music, shouting, doing drugs, discharging firearms, parties, abject lack of personal hygiene or cleaning practices, shitting in stairwells/doorways, you name it, it happens. These laws basically recognize that you're not allowed to use your own property in ways that make life miserable for the people around you. If things escalate to the point that the cops get involved on numerous occasions, it's not really fair to the neighborhood to just let you keep doing whatever the hell it is you're doing.

But on the other hand, we've also got situations where (1) the "disturbance" is actually something the tenant is a victim of as much as the neighbors, or (2) someone is calling the cops purely for the purposes of harassment, and overworked, impatient, and/or racist cops can't be arsed to do the actual investigation. These are people that the above laws are not supposed to catch, but do wind up catching some times.

The solution? Do what states like Indiana do: make it basically illegal to evict people who are the victims of domestic violence. It's right there in the law.

That would seem to split the difference, no? Penalizing people who are being assholes while protecting people who are themselves victims.
posted by valkyryn at 11:43 AM on October 3, 2013 [16 favorites]


I think it's time to stop searching for logical rationales behind laws and instead ask: who benefits?

You only do that for laws? Damn, now I feel extra misanthropic today.
posted by Slackermagee at 11:43 AM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


hattifattener, I did see those other provisions, but the question I was answering was related to how can this law apply to this situation? It applies because the police were called for a domestic dispute.

But I agree, the law does seem to encourage the landlord to take actions that would violate the law itself. If I had to guess, the no one can be evicted because of this law language was added as a CYA provision so they could claim later during the inevitable lawsuit that they were not evicting people. No no no, we don't get people evicted for calling the cops, the law says that!

You just get evicted for breaching the lease, since the landlord was encouraged to include language that caused calling the police to be a breach of the lease. If you don't evict the tenant and the cops keep getting called, the landlord just gets fined repeatedly. It's a very heavy handed tactic to encourage landlords to evict "problem" tenants or not rent to "problem" tenants in the first place.
posted by Arbac at 11:44 AM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have heard of laws like this before, but they were usually designed to punish landlords whose properties get too many police calls -- in other words, they were designed to encourage landlords to be more careful about how they rented properties and to take steps to make sure that renters weren't running amok. Basically, anti-slumlord stuff, and not that controversial (although landlords could potentially use it for bad ends). This thing puts the pressure on the people living in the place, bypassing the slumlord aspect and making the whole problem worse...
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:46 AM on October 3, 2013


hattifattener: " I. It is strongly encouraged that all licensees include in their leases language that provides that it is a breach of the lease for a tenant to be convicted for disorderly behavior.

So it's not illegal to call the police if you're a renter, but the city encourages landlords to make calling the police be a violation of the lease.
"

Doesn't this actually say convicted, so that they'd need to be convicted of disorderly behaviour in a court to be in breach of the lease? If that's the case (and, let's say, the disorderly conduct happened in the apartment or house they're renting), that doesn't seem entirely unreasonable to me.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 11:48 AM on October 3, 2013


I think it's time to stop searching for logical rationales behind laws and instead ask: who benefits?

If someone is benefiting from the law, would that not provide a logical rationale for it?

Bad intentions (like a desire to discriminate) can be veiled behind a law that appears neutral on its face. And even good intentions can make for bad laws, especially if the law is poorly written.

That's why I was trying to spitball the rationale for the law.

Aside: sometimes laws are accompanied by explanations by the drafters on what they were trying to accomplish and how they envisioned the law would play out. That can be very illuminating in situations like these.
posted by Davenhill at 12:00 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have heard of laws like this before, but they were usually designed to punish landlords whose properties get too many police calls -- in other words, they were designed to encourage landlords to be more careful about how they rented properties and to take steps to make sure that renters weren't running amok.

That was my thought as well, but the cynic in me immediately started considering how this would be applied systemically to disenfranchise poor minorities.

Not because it has to do that, but because it inevitably will.
posted by quin at 12:09 PM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


I can't articulate how fucked up this is, but fortunately everyone else is on it.
posted by RainyJay at 12:34 PM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


So basically the town saw that its "check engine" light was on and put some tape over it?
posted by Navelgazer at 12:43 PM on October 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


Norristown sounds like the kind of place that would show up in a Lee Child novel, or an episode of The A-Team.
posted by box at 12:45 PM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Making robberies into larcenies. Making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I've been here before."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:52 PM on October 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Norristown is a lot of things, but rational and flush it isn't.
The median household income was $35,714, and the median family income was $42,357. Males had a median income of $32,113 versus $26,746 for females. The per capita income was $17,977. About 13.5% of families and 17.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 23.6% of those under the age of 18 and 13.8% of those 65 and older.
Norristown is about three blocks of county courthouse, shining transit center parking garage, and one dingy transit center with some smaller restaurants, fast food chains, and a local theatre thrown in, surrounded by a lot of older housing and a relatively high level of crime (or at least highly perceived level of crime.) It's the hub of suburban bus lines and the closest transit option to Philadelphia for some of the far-out suburbs/colleges, but I don't know a lot of folks who come to Norristown to do anything but quickly catch the train, go to jury duty, and get a new driver's license. The older folks I know from the area perceive Norristown poorly, especially because of its changing racial demographics. (Though Norristown's proximity to other major suburban towns and Philly itself as well as the newer pharmaceutical developments in Collegeville suggests to me that it will be developing further in the future.)

That this kind of horrible rubbish would come out of Norristown doesn't come as a surprise.
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:05 PM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


While this implementation obviously goes too far, not all nuisance property ordinances are a bad idea.

My town, home to a large university, has several targeted at absentee landlords who live nowhere near their property and couldn't care less that the police break up parties at their rentals every weekend, that there are 15 people living in a 3 bedroom house or, in extreme cases, that the property has become a flop house for transient drug abuse.

Yes, obviously it can be abused, but the ability to hold the actual property owner responsible for the detrimental effect their property is having on a neighborhood is powerful and should not be dismissed out of hand.
posted by madajb at 1:16 PM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I really don't want to live on this planet anymore.
posted by sarcasticah at 2:54 PM on October 3, 2013


Besides the hideous outcome in the Lakisha Briggs case, what laws like this penalizing landlords for tenants' behavior do is strongly magnify the already deep problem of landlord discrimination based upon biased ideas of what kinds of tenants are "troublesome."

My parents live in a municipality with a similar ordinance regarding drug offenses. They are also the owners of several rental properties in low-income neighborhoods.

They had a tenant -- a single mother coming out of a bad relationship -- who paid her rent on time, didn't have complaints against her, and so on. Then the police, acting on a tip, searched her home and found something drug related, I think a crack pipe or something. The tenant swore it wasn't hers, of course.

It was strongly suggested to my parents that they immediately start the process of evicting this single mother, because if there was another offense, they would be barred from renting the property for half a year. This would cost them thousands of dollars they really couldn't afford.

By the way, the police in this town are widely considered to be racist with the police chief recently making a comment about how no one cares if "thugs" shoot each other. My stepdad, not exactly a bastion of progressive views about race, believed that they probably planted the item on her and chose not to evict her. And we had suspicions about who might have phoned in an anonymous tip.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:01 PM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is literally the legislation which drove me out of community involvement when it was introduced in Albany. I couldn't sit there in neighborhood association meetings and hear this kind of legal nonsense treated seriously without being moved to commit an affray myself.

How do I hitch a ride off this fucking dump?
posted by mikelieman at 3:09 PM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm not a lawyer, but how does this not create a "chilling effect" that would violate citizens 14th amendment right to equal protection?
posted by 1066 at 3:27 PM on October 3, 2013


the cynic in me immediately started considering how this would be applied systemically to disenfranchise poor minorities.

I guess it's everybody elses' turn to be reasonable today, which is good, because I just went ahead and assumed that that was exactly why these laws get written to begin with.
posted by hap_hazard at 3:49 PM on October 3, 2013


I'm not a lawyer, but how does this not create a "chilling effect" that would violate citizens 14th amendment right to equal protection?

Well, the town council would have to have heard of the constitution and be able to read it for that to have come into consideration.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:54 PM on October 3, 2013


People's abilities to be fucking idiots never ceases to amaze me. In other news, adding Norristown to the list of places I will never visit.
posted by cjorgensen at 3:55 PM on October 3, 2013


It's not just Norrisville. Recently, a Cleveland bar whose patrons were the victims of hate crimes got a letter from the city about just such a thing. Except after everyone (rightfully!) FREAKED THE FUCK OUT, the city rescinded it. And then our local asshole pundits accused everyone of getting too het up about it, anyway.

As with all Cleveland.com articles, DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS dear rainbowy jeebus just don't.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 4:04 PM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


And you wonder why people on marginal incomes got sucked into the housing bubble.
posted by holgate at 4:29 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't understand how American MeFites spend your energies debating rationale here rather than just grabbing your pitchforks.
posted by dry white toast at 9:56 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I find this topic really wrenching, because it's close to home. See, I live in a neighborhood that was on the verge of being completely overrun by drug and gang activity a few years ago*, but where a nuisance ordinance, among other things, was an essential component in making the community livable again.

Although we are now landlords ourselves, our family's experience in the neighborhood stretches back forty years, and we identified the slumlords as the key to the problem years before the city agreed to hold them responsible for their chronic nuisance tenants, and before the police adopted policies with overall public safety as the goal rather than simply racking up convictions. For years, it seemed that the only thing that was ever really addressed was drug dealing (gang activity wasn't common until the late 90s), and then only after years of calling 911 and basically dropping tips into a black hole with the hope that they might eventually bear fruit. Then, landlords would only deign to evict after a conviction. You could call them a million times and complain about other issues and they'd laugh and suggest that we move out of the "ghetto" (which even today is majority white). Now, with the nuisance ordinance, we can get results in (gasp) as little as 16 months (actual timeline of the drug house across the street from us). In 2009, this time of night (3 am), I stood a good chance of looking outside and seeing a customer pulled up to the house idling, but now we have a safe, quiet street. It often helps that in addition to drug dealing, there are other nuisance behaviors ranging from fights, to trash on the lawn, to you name it. (That house across the street had incidents such as an unconscious body on the lawn, a trail of blood leading from the front door to a car, broken glass from that same blood incident that wasn't cleaned up for months, and a rape, which may have been the same night but we didn't find out about until the year after it happened.) So in general you have to understand I see a lot of good in the basic concept of a nuisance ordinance.

Incidentally, while I'm sure it happens, I scoff somewhat at the notion being advanced that landlords are somehow eager to evict people and love having the nuisance ordinance at their disposal. To the contrary, landlords in my neighborhood resist evicting until they literally get their arms twisted by the police department. Even to this day, certain landlords seem to get their kicks from renting to the noisiest, trashiest tenants possible, and it's hard not to see this as a self-interested behavior -- a form of blockbusting. We've resisted selling out and turning our properties over to slumlords, but others have not, and I reiterate that I see little salivating over being the powerful, evicting landlords and much more over getting away with renting to people who give you money month after month no matter how bad their neighbors think they are. With few exceptions, the landlords have only grudgingly accepted that they have any responsibility to the community as a whole (especially when they're not local, one place on our block was owned by a guy in California who bought it over the internet; it became a party house that was only busted up when they found two juvenile armed robbers in hiding there). I'm not saying there aren't (say) racist Simon Legrees out there, I'm just saying what I see is landlords who are part and parcel of the problem because they don't care who they rent to in the first place and are impervious to criticism in the second.

There are, I will freely admit, in my community some mitigating factors. We have a trustworthy, professional police force. We have a state law that exempts domestic violence victims (and I don't know what the Milwaukee study found with regard to its application, but the exemption exists). I doubt our chief would even want to apply the nuisance law in the way that Norristown did, even if he thought he could get away with it. It's just counter-productive.

The agonizing and personal part of this is that for me, I also want fair housing (my mom was involved in the passage of a fair housing ordinance here long before it became statewide or nationwide). I don't want the point of this to be "keep dark skinned people out". Unlike most people, I understand systemic racism and don't necessarily think a racist outcome is because of naked bigotry. If the end result is that our nuisance ordinance is just a new form of redlining, I would be very troubled. I also understand that, for example, code enforcement efforts can have an overall effect where they raise rents for all tenants (you might called this gentrification shadow syndrome).

But at this point, after forty years of living with the bad tenants that one or two landlords who own the property on our block choose for us, I'm really inclined to prefer to press for my own interests in a safe, clean, quiet community. And for the most part, we have achieved that, and not only for "us" but for all the working-class people who live here and maybe didn't want to pick up the phone and call the cops or the city, or maybe took an agnostic position, or were just apathetic. Free! Better community, people! And you didn't even have to lift a finger yourselves!

As a final point, I would just like to address the actual Norristown case. There are indications from the press coverage that the procedure may not have been formally followed or properly followed. If the city made errors, that's on them, but if Briggs took actions herself based on assumptions about how the procedure worked I'd be troubled if that were placed on the city as well. Additionally, I would just like people to consider the scenario where a (usually) woman involved with a domestically-violent man decides to invite that violent person back into her home and the community of her own volition. I have a very difficult time applying the DV exemption in that case, and yet that's partly what we seem to have here. I'm speaking from experience, as we had a tenant who was a victim, yet couldn't seem to stop her contact with her abuser, and in the process of sticking by her we had three to four times the value of the security deposit done in damage when he either tried to break into her apartment, or trashed it while there seeing her or their kid. Even if you want to see her as a victim, it's a situation that can become financially untenable for the landlord.

I am, however, uncertain that any of these issues of fact will actually be addressed in the lawsuit, and worry that we could soon have constitutional bars to using one of the most effective tools we've ever had to clean up and improve our community. We've got a quarter-million invested in it right now, but if that happens, I'm not sure I'm going to want to maintain that and I will in effect be blockbusted out of here, with those same nuisance-friendly slumlords being first in line to buy our properties. But what choice would we have? We would simply see them surround us, plat by plat, until we can bear it no more. I know lots who've left already; all I have to do is look out my window and count the single-family homes that are now rentals or broken up into 2 or 3 units, and owned by a problem landlord. They hold the money; I hope they won't then hold all the cards as well.

* Just so you know, this happened to me on my own porch in 2008. I was left bloody in the street and spent six months recovering from a concussion.
posted by dhartung at 2:09 AM on October 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


"I don't understand how American MeFites spend your energies debating rationale here rather than just grabbing your pitchforks."

Never bring a pitchfork to a gun fight.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:38 AM on October 4, 2013


dhartung: I feel like the bigger legal concern here isn't holding landlords accountable for the actions of their tenants, but the lack of due process. You may not need to convict someone in court to evict them, but just racking up points on a scale from calling 911, or being at the sole discretion of the Chief of Police isn't a great system either.
posted by thegears at 6:29 AM on October 4, 2013


You could call them a million times and complain about other issues and they'd laugh and suggest that we move out of the "ghetto" (which even today is majority white).

Wait, what? I feel like there's something I'm missing here -- why the parenthetical?
posted by KathrynT at 8:22 AM on October 4, 2013


I feel like there's something I'm missing here -- why the parenthetical?

Sarcasem Parenthesis? Because of course THE RIGHT KIND OF white people never cause trouble.
posted by mikelieman at 8:30 AM on October 4, 2013


This is really common. In the main city right next to where I live, you can be logged as a nuisance caller with as few as three noise complaints, if the cops do a drive-by and don't record excessive noise at that time. It basically means that your calls won't be considered as evidence of an ongoing issue. So the old advice to call in order to establish a record of the offense is not just useless - it's explicitly counter-productive.
posted by lodurr at 10:29 AM on October 4, 2013


KathrynT: The point is that in my mostly-white city, even having a plurality of nonwhites means the rest of the city labels it the ghetto.

being at the sole discretion of the Chief of Police isn't a great system either

Look, I can be a tenant and complain to my landlord about the noisy neighbor upstairs, and they don't get due process then either. Unless all evictions are automatically granted housing court hearings, there is never going to be a fully fair system.

The way it works in our community is that the police are involved throughout the process, and try to mediate, if you will, solutions with the tenants before they ever have authority to talk to the landlord. The landlord then has the responsibility to present a mitigation plan to the chief, or his deputy, and this is not required to be eviction, or even eviction of the entire household -- just of the problem individuals. As housing is not a right, but a contractual civil thingamabob (I forget the terminology), the landlord is free to break that contract under the terms of the lease already. A tenant who is given a five-day nuisance ordinance eviction notice is still free to contest the eviction in court, although they have no rights to "cure" the nuisance at that point.

I won't go into detail here, but just understand that I have sufficient knowledge of what is going on that the situations where -- at least in my community -- nuisance-related pressure is put on landlords come at a very late stage in the process and only after months and months and months of nuisance activity. This discussion is revolving around phone calls, but -- at least in my community -- the idea that anyone would get a formal nuisance eviction through this ordinance solely because of a few phone calls, rather than explicitly recorded nuisance activity as logged into the system, is hard to imagine. As I noted, one property logged 16 months of drug activity, nuisance noise complaints, fights, open gang activity, and other issues before the landlord was privately persuaded that the tenants should move. As far as I'm concerned, the tenants and landlord alike had plenty of opportunity to choose the path of being good neighbors.

But yes, I reiterate: Maybe I have it good. Maybe I have the only professional police force and the only well-written ordinance and the only environment where this can work fairly. If so, I still object that we might have to lose the most effective tool we have ever had for making our community attractive and safe because of the shitty actions of someplace six states away, assuming the court rules in favor of the plaintiff.
posted by dhartung at 3:28 AM on October 5, 2013


>Unless all evictions are automatically granted housing court hearings, there is never going to be a fully fair system.

Last time I checked, in New York, to evict a tenant you needed to go to court to obtain a court order ( due process ) and then the Sheriff does the heavy lifting.

You can TELL a tenant they have to go, but if they're on a lease you need to go to court to MAKE THEM GO.
posted by mikelieman at 3:48 AM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe I have the only professional police force and the only well-written ordinance and the only environment where this can work fairly.

I mean, I don't know if it's the only place, but I think the whole point is that Norristown has none of those things right now, which allows for these patterns of abuse. You could probably talk this over with someone in your community to look at the differences in the two laws or what the court case actually focuses on if you're worried about your local law.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:38 AM on October 5, 2013


Unless all evictions are automatically granted housing court hearings, there is never going to be a fully fair system.

Umm. . . they are. It's not generally possible to evict someone from housing without some kind of court process. Doesn't matter whether the person even has a valid lease: if someone is on your property and you want them off, the only way to do that is to initiate an eviction proceeding. This is usually done in small claims court and landlords win most of the time, but there is, in fact, a hearing.
posted by valkyryn at 10:38 AM on October 5, 2013


Look, I misspoke. The point here being argued by the ACLU is for some sort of due process that factors into whether the eviction order (chief of police letter) is issued at all, and I was responding to the issue of "being at the sole discretion of the Chief of Police". My point is that it isn't.

You could probably talk this over with someone in your community to look at the differences in the two laws or what the court case actually focuses on if you're worried about your local law.

Again, the discussion has focused on how housing advocates (presumably not liking them) and others (presumably landlords liking them, although I wonder) are watching the case for the repercussions it may have. Until there's some kind of ruling we don't know the impact.

I do know that all it took was one guy in Illinois to complain about a parking ticket and suddenly police departments all across Wisconsin stopped providing information about arrests of any kind. That's some serious attention to potential precedent.

I'm also in Wisconsin, a state which has developed a bad habit of rewriting its landlord-tenant law willy-nilly with barely any public hearings (the Fitzwalkerstan paradigm). I just have no sense of safety of how this all may fall out.

I think the whole point is that Norristown has none of those things right now

This is not something that I entirely accept as it's part of the plaintiff's case. I still haven't seen anything which makes it clear whether she acted under coercion of the law, or her assumption that she was facing coercion. The facts I have read support the latter interpretation, but the ACLU case seems to be assuming the latter. If the facts are not litigated at the original jurisdiction they will not be valid questions for an appeal (in general).
posted by dhartung at 4:59 AM on October 6, 2013


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