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Advocates: Domestic Violence Survivors Face Housing Instability Under Arizona Housing Ordinance

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A lawsuit filed in federal court targets an ordinance that advocates claim leaves survivors of intimate partner violence forced to chose between calling the police for help or facing eviction.

A domestic violence survivor and single mother of two filed a federal lawsuit last week against the City of Surprise, Arizona, challenging a law that advocates claim pressures landlords to evict tenants who place more than four calls to police in 30 days, or for crimes occurring at the property, even when the tenant is the victim.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Arizona, and private firm Aiken Schenk Hawkins & Ricciardi P.C. filed the lawsuit on behalf of Nancy Markham, in which they argue enforcement of the nuisance ordinance violates Ms. Markham’s First Amendment right to seek police assistance. The lawsuit alleges the ordinance disregards the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition on gender discrimination, among other claims.

“Police protection is one of the most basic services the government provides,” Sandra Park, senior staff attorney in the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, said in a statement following the lawsuit. “For domestic violence survivors, it may be their only means to safety. The nuisance law ignores the needs of victims, empowers abusers to act without fear of police intervention, and increases victims’ vulnerability to both homelessness and future violence by pressuring landlords to remove them from housing.”

Nuisance ordinances like the one at issue in Surprise, Arizona, identify a property as a public nuisance when it is the site of a certain number of calls for police or alleged nuisance conduct.

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The ordinances are sometimes called disorderly house ordinances or crime-free ordinances and are designed in part to address assault, harassment, stalking, disorderly conduct, and other types of behavior. But advocates note these laws usually apply whether a resident was a victim or a perpetrator of the nuisance activity, which means domestic violence victims can face eviction for trying to protect themselves at home.

Laws like the one at issue in Markham’s lawsuit usually require property owners to “abate the nuisance” or face steep penalties. Many landlords respond to a nuisance citation by evicting the tenant, refusing to renew their lease, or instructing tenants not to call 9-1-1, according to advocates. That is what Markham has alleged happened to her.

Between March and September 2014, Markham’s ex-boyfriend choked her, punched her, and threatened her with weapons, as alleged in the complaint. Instead of helping protect Markham’s safety, the complaint says, a Surprise police officer instead enforced the nuisance ordinance by notifying her landlord about the police calls and encouraging Markham’s eviction.

In September 2014, the property manager of Markham’s apartment notified her that she would be evicted for having violated the law, even though the police never mentioned the law to Markham during any of her calls.

“Rather than protect public safety, these laws put domestic violence survivors in danger,” Nancy Markham said in a statement following the lawsuit. “When you are dealing with constant abuse as I was, you may need police protection on multiple occasions. The Surprise ordinance punished me for seeking much-needed emergency assistance.”

When the law passed in June 2010, the William E. Morris Institute for Justice and others warned the Surprise City Council that the policy would increase the vulnerability of domestic violence survivors. City council members passed the law anyway.

Proponents of nuisance ordinances argue they are necessary to deter crime, but advocates say that in practice, the ordinances undermine public safety and punish vulnerable people. Advocates note that survivors of domestic violence often feel they must endure violence and threats without police intervention because calling law enforcement could lead to homelessness.

Nuisance ordinances have also been found to disproportionately affect and be disparately enforced against communities of color and people with mental disabilities. Advocates charge that because these ordinances typically do not require that residents be told about a warning or citation, affected people often have no opportunity to show that they were actually victims of the “nuisance conduct” and may not know that a nuisance ordinance is at the root of their housing instability.

Arizona is not alone in enacting these kinds of domestic nuisance ordinances.

The ACLU last year successfully challenged a similar ordinance in Pennsylvania, and a report issued in 2013 by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago noted at least 100 municipalities in Illinois had similar laws on the books. Advocates say these policies can reduce the availability of desperately needed affordable rental housing.

“Laws like the Surprise nuisance ordinance unfairly impact victims of domestic violence and force them to choose between stable housing and protecting themselves and their families from their abusers,” cooperating attorney Heather A. Macre of Aiken Schenk Hawkins & Ricciardi P.C. said in a statement. “This is a choice no one should have to make.”

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