On June 23 of last year, Lakisha Briggs’ ex-boyfriend, Wilbert Bennett, went to find the 33-year-old mother of two at her house in Norristown, Pennsylvania, which she rented with a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 8 voucher. Bennett, who was just released from prison, wanted to get back together, and he refused to take no for an answer.
“You are going to be with me or you are going to be with no one,” he allegedly threatened.
Even though Briggs was terrified Bennett would hurt her or her 3-year-old daughter if she forced him to leave, there was something she feared even worse: calling the police for help. If she did, she could be kicked out of her home, and that wasn’t a risk she could afford. Feeling defenseless, Briggs succumbed to his intrusion and demands, allowing him and the friends he invited over to stay.
As outlined in the federal lawsuit filed April 24 on behalf of Briggs by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA), and Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP, Briggs had already been given three strikes under Norristown’s discretionary Rental License Ordinance. The ordinance gives the Montgomery County municipality the right to countermand a landlord’s rental license and provoke a tenant’s eviction if police respond to three “disorderly behavior” calls in four months, including domestic disturbances in which a mandatory arrest in not required.
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The strikes Briggs received were the result of police calls made in April and May of last year—two of which were due to acts of domestic violence committed against her. In May, the borough began proceedings to revoke her landlord Darren Sudman’s rental license, but granted the property—and by extension Briggs—a 30-day probationary period after a late May hearing. Any violation during that period would have resulted in rescindment and eviction, claims the lawsuit.
Despite her reluctant surrender, on the evening of June 23 Bennett assaulted Briggs, according to the suit. Her lip was bitten and torn. A glass ashtray was shattered against the right side of her head, leaving a two-inch lesion. She was knocked down. Grabbing one of the large glass fragments, Bennett stabbed her in the neck. Briggs become unconscious as blood surged from the four-inch-deep wound.
Though the attack was brutal, Briggs didn’t call the police, because she feared provoking eviction. But a neighbor did, and soon Briggs was airlifted to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital for emergency medical care.
According to the lawsuit, David R. Forrest, Norristown’s municipal administrator at the time and one of the defendants named, considered the police response a violation of her probation. Three days after the incident, he told Sudman his rental license was rescinded and Briggs had ten days to vacate. She had just returned home from the hospital when Sudman broke the news.
“[Sudman] tried very hard to help her. He was very supportive of her and didn’t think it was fair that he should have to evict her,” Sara Rose, an ACLU-PA staff attorney and representative on the case, told Rewire. “Ultimately, the borough gave him no choice.”
Although Magisterial District Justice Margaret Hunsicker overturned the eviction, allowing Briggs to remain in the unit, Norristown officials continued to pursue it, asserting they had an “independent right” to enforce the city’s ordinance. They ostensibly planned to remove Briggs from her home and condemn the property.
This is where the ACLU intervened. According to Rose, the group sent a letter to Norristown officials in September charting the ordinance’s First, Fourth, Fifth, and 14th Amendment infringements, as well as other legal issues identified under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA), which prohibits housing discrimination based on a number of identifiers, including sex.
The group was able to successfully sojourn Briggs’ eviction, as well as compel the municipality to repeal the ordinance. But according to the lawsuit, the council proposed a new adaptation the very same day Norristown annulled the old one, on November 20. Under the current version, which passed in December, the chief of police still has the discretionary power to govern what constitutes “disorderly behavior,” but instead of revoking a landlord’s license, the landlord is penalized with mandatory fines that escalate with each violation (plus all court and attorney fees incurred by Norristown): $300-$500 for the first, $500-$750 for the second, $750-$1,000 for the third, and $1,000 for the fourth.
The federal lawsuit challenges the new ordinance’s constitutionality just the same, arguing that, much like its predecessor, the threat of eviction due to the need for police protection violates the First Amendment’s Petition Clause, which the Supreme Court has recognized to encompass requesting law enforcement assistance, as well as the Fourth Amendment’s “unreasonable search and seizure” clause and the 14th Amendment right to due process.
Norristown officials disagree. In an April 25 statement, interim Municipal Administrator Robert Glisson wrote, “The ordinance provision currently in effect contains all of the constitutional due process provisions required to protect the residents of Norristown” and “does not, in any way, discriminate against any persons, nor does it punish victims of domestic violence.” Glisson and other Norristown officials did not return repeat requests for comment, nor was a Right to Know request filed by Rewire fulfilled.
“I don’t think the intention [of these ordinances] was to ever prevent victims from calling to report offenders’ behavior, but that’s the unfortunate consequence of it,” Maria Macaluso, executive director of the Women’s Center of Montgomery County, told Rewire. “I really think they need to seriously look at it and see who’s going to be impacted.”
“Chilling” Effect on Domestic Violence Survivors
Norristown isn’t the only Pennsylvania municipality with this type of ordinance. According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV), there are 19 known “disorderly conduct” or “nuisance” ordinances reaching across the Commonwealth, in cities from Pittsburgh to Wilkes-Barre. There are also 59 others known throughout the country.
The umbrella organization first became aware of these regulations around 2006, when the city of Reading passed a similar rule. But PCADV didn’t become directly involved in efforts to track these ordinances until 2011, when it teamed up with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and ACLU-PA to develop tool kits and training for attorneys and advocates addressing the potential impact on domestic violence survivors. Since the work is fledgling, the exact number of ordinances in existence throughout the state is unknown, but Laurie L. Baughman, PCADV’s senior attorney, suspects there are many more—and the ramifications far greater—than what is currently known.
“In the last three years, we’ve been hearing [about more ordinances], and the impact has been a lot more detrimental in the anecdotes we’ve heard about, similar to what happened with Ms. Briggs,” Baughman told Rewire. “The tough part is, often times, the victim may not even know what’s the underlying cause [of eviction] because the landlord can be pretty non-specific, and just [write] ‘breach of lease.’ With a lack of resources, with a lack of access to attorneys, folks who are facing eviction don’t tend to go to hearings and challenge [it].”
While the ACLU claims nuisance ordinances are deleterious to all tenants, there’s special concern for how they may disparately impact domestic violence survivors. As seen with Briggs, survivors may be less likely to call police, fearing their need for protection will be labeled “disorderly behavior” and count as a strike toward eviction—and, subsequently, homelessness.
In numbers, this translates to 20 percent of homeless women citing domestic violence as the primary reason for homelessness, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Studies show that women of color, like Briggs, face “particularly high eviction rates,” while women in lower-income households and neighborhoods experience repeated or severe domestic violence the most—a rate twice that of women in higher-income neighborhoods.
“[Housing] is one of the biggest barriers to getting and staying safe,” Baughman told Rewire. According to HUD, 58 out of 217 sheltered homeless persons in Montgomery County are domestic violence survivors. “When you have an ordinance layer that says, ‘Look, you can’t call the police and after so many times, you potentially will be evicted,’ that has a pretty daunting and chilling impact on a victim.”
It’s not merely conjecture. A 2012 study analyzing a similar Milwaukee ordinance showed that 39 of 71 evictions or threats of eviction by landlords whose citation letters included domestic violence incidents involved women tenants—many of whom weren’t residing with their abuser. That’s compared to four cases of men, and nine cases of couples living together.
The Affordable Housing Problem
For many survivors abetted by the Women’s Center of Montgomery County, a volunteer-driven domestic violence organization based in Norristown, finding a new home rarely involves unimpeded choice. Instead, scouting housing is restricted by a survivor’s lack of resources and a deficiency in affordable and inhabitable residences, particularly in wealthy cantons like Montgomery County, ranked Pennsylvania’s second-richest county. According to Macaluso, low-income housing is scarce in Montgomery, and the little that is available tends to exist in urbanizing municipalities like Norristown and Pottstown, which are already battling high violent crime rates. In fact, the Montgomery County Housing Authority (MCHA) website lists only three public housing communities for general occupancy and four buildings for the elderly and people with disabilities.The MCHA also isn’t currently accepting public housing or Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) applications at this time, according to the site.
“[For domestic violence survivors] it’s, ‘Who will let me lend from them? I don’t have enough money. How will I do this? I have kids. Will they take my kids?’ It makes it much worse for them in those situations,” Macaluso said. “They’re in a panicked, frustrated, and desperate situation when they’re fighting not to get thrown out of this place. … They’re desperately holding on to whatever small scrap of home they have.”
Nationwide, the demand for affordable housing exceeds supply by 4.5 million people, with 87 percent of cities surveyed in 2007 claiming the dearth of affordable housing as a cause of homelessness, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. What’s more, in a 27-city survey from 2004, the law center found the average wait for Section 8 vouchers, which help subsidize rental costs, is 35 months; it was 20 months for public housing.
“One of the biggest problems is that tenants who receive Section 8 housing assistance, if they are evicted, may lose that housing assistance,” Rose told Rewire. “That’s a really big problem with these ordinances. It really does pile on to that chilling effect because not only does the tenant have to be afraid of losing their home if they call the police, but they can be afraid of losing their ability to even get another home if they lose their Section 8 voucher.”
That’s exactly what happened to a domestic violence survivor living in Pennsylvania’s rural northeast in the fall of 2011. Baughman explained the survivor (whose identifying details were withheld) and her children were evicted by her landlord under a similar ordinance because of “too many police response calls to her residence”—calls related to domestic violence incidents committed by her children’s father. After learning of the eviction, the local public housing authority terminated her Section 8 benefits, “ignoring that [it] was based on the incidents of domestic violence.”
As a result, the family became homeless, couch-surfing with different family members for a “considerable time.” Eventually, the survivor connected with local domestic violence services and was able to retain an attorney, who, along with the PCADV, ACLU Women’s Rights Project, and ACLU-PA, sent a letter to the county’s housing authority outlining the various legal breaches the termination triggered—particularly against VAWA’s public housing provision and fair housing laws. After receiving the letter, the public housing authority agreed to reinstate benefits, and now the survivor and her children are living in their own home again. (This past Friday, PCADV also filed an amicus brief in the Briggs v. Norristown case, along with 18 state domestic violence programs and four national programs.)
In fact, VAWA, which was reauthorized this year after much contention, establishes widespread protections for domestic violence survivors in public housing and housing assistance programs. Eligible public housing and Section 8 tenants cannot be “denied admission to, denied assistance under, terminated from participation in, or evicted from housing” on the basis they are or have been “a victim of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking.” More importantly, VAWA prohibits criminal activity directly stemming from domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking to be used as cause to evict, penalize or terminate benefits for a victimize tenant—meaning, under the act, a police response to a domestic violence call could not be considered a strike against the tenant pursuant to an ordinance.
Still, the loss of housing is further compounded by the concern other landlords will refuse to rent to the survivor despite that legal protection, said Macaluso, who has 20 years of experience in fair housing work. Many survivors using the women’s center’s TANF-funded Relocation Assistance Program are hesitant to allow the non-profit to send the security deposit check directly to the prospective landlord, said the executive director, for fear they’ll learn “there’s a problem.” Some landlords involved with the program have indeed withdrawn from an agreement, Macaluso said, because they’re “convinced the offender will start coming around, and they don’t want to deal with it.”
It’s not completely far-fetched. In 2008, the law center reported that 65 percent of Washington, D.C., landlords tested by the Equal Rights Center refused housing to domestic violence survivors, and 27.5 percent of New York City landlords either denied housing or failed to follow up with applicants after learning they were domestic violence survivors.
“The [landlords] who really get it and want to reach out and help people, we really appreciate. It’s the ones who don’t want to reach out who are concerned about their property values than helping another human being,” Macaluso told Rewire. Of the 4,000-plus survivors the center aids each year, around 50 to 100 use its relocation services. “That’s when it becomes very frustrating for us. It’s like, ‘How could you not want to see someone get help? How could you not want this woman to call the police and get the services she needs? Is this piece of ground more important to you than her life?’”
Even if survivors are able to secure other housing, there’s the issue of relocating their children. For example, said Macaluso, if the survivor is separated from their batterer and they have children together, they may have to stay within a certain school district in a certain community so the father can have access to their kids.
It’s a restriction not always conducive to a survivor’s situation, creating another barrier to finding alternative housing, said Rose. Consider Kulpmont Borough, in Pennsylvania’s Northumberland County. In an effort to “combat blight and deterioration of local residential property,” the district adopted its own discretionary rental ordinance in August 2010 that allows its Department of Code Enforcement to close a rental unit if three “disruptive conduct” or police reports are filed within a 12-month period. Kulpmont also prohibits tenants evicted for “disruptive conduct”—defined as “any form or conduct, action, or behavior … that is so loud, offensive, riotous or otherwise disturbs other persons of ordinary sensibility”—from renting in the borough for a year from the eviction date.
But the adverse effects of nuisance property ordinances aren’t relegated to housing or benefit issues. Mere knowledge of these ordinances—and the fear a survivor may have about contacting police—can empower abusers to commit even more grievous crimes without consequence, said Rose.
This is evident with Briggs. Rose theorizes that Briggs’s now-incarcerated batterer, who she broke up with in April of last year, continued to harass and abuse Briggs partly because “he realized she was so afraid to call the police that he could act with impunity.”
“The [June 23] injury that Ms. Briggs suffered at the hands of her ex-boyfriend is attributable to Norristown, because they are the ones who threatened to kick her out of her home if she requested any police assistance,” Rose said. Although she lives in a new location, Briggs is still frightened to call the police because of the ordinance.
It’s that state of terror Reps. Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery) and Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery) want to eliminate. In an April 30 press conference, the two representatives urged Norristown officials to repeal the ordinance, as they believe it discourages domestic violence survivors from seeking help—“a clear and conscious right” all tenants should have “without the threat of eviction looming over their heads,” Vereb said. The two politicians plan on drafting legislation in the near future that would prevent districts across the state from “enforcing nuisance ordinances which threaten to displace victims of crime who contact the police.”
“The primary obligation for all levels of government is to protect its citizens,” said Stephens at the event. “It is unconscionable to me that any government anywhere would penalize someone who simply called for help to prevent them from being injured or killed.”
Correction, June 5, 12:00 pm: A version of this article included a misspelling of Laurie L. Baughman’s name. It is Baughman, not Baugham. We regret the error.