Crime-Free and Nuisance Property Ordinances Should Be Abolished

All families deserve to live in happy and stable homes free from criminalization, family separation, and surveillance.

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others have forced a long overdue national conversation about systemic racism in the United States. We cannot talk about dismantling systems of racial oppression and in turn, police reform, without considering one of the most blunt civil instruments law enforcement and local governments have at their disposal: crime-free and nuisance property ordinances.

Racist policing flourishes within the construct of crime-free and nuisance property ordinances, by giving police unchecked discretion to reinforce racial boundaries and target Black and Latino/a/x communities for eviction and displacement. Because the threshold for enforcement is often so low, a few calls to the police for minor offenses—even if those calls do not result in an arrest, charge, or conviction—can result in a person or household being labeled a “nuisance” and evicted from their home.

These ordinances also reinforce existing individual racial prejudices and allow white neighbors to directly control the behavior of their Black and Latino/a/x neighbors, by threatening their housing if they do not behave in a way considered acceptable by white neighbors. White neighbors use their power to repeatedly call upon the police to target their Black and Latino/a/x neighbors whenever they engage in behavior deemed as disruptions or socially unacceptable.

For the tenant, enforcement often results in eviction, which disrupts the lives of Black and Latino/a/x families, making it increasingly more difficult for them to secure new housing. All families deserve to live in happy and stable homes free from criminalization, family separation, and surveillance.

When The Cost of Being Crime Free report was released in August of 2013, the intention was to start a conversation with local governments about the dangers and legal liability surrounding these laws. Our hope ultimately was for local governments to consider alternatives to these ordinances. However, the report did not center the role police play in enforcement, and did not explicitly call for abolition of these ordinances.

As we have investigated these ordinances over the years and listened to the experiences of Black and Latino/a/x families directly targeted and harmed by these laws, it is clear that the abolition of crime-free and nuisance property ordinances remains the only solution. Tragically, the death of Breonna Taylor—who was murdered by an officer assigned to the “place-based investigations” team of the Louisville police department—illustrates the serious consequences that can result when police are tasked with surveilling residents at so-called “problem” properties.

We call on all local governments to deeply interrogate their use of these ordinances, the role of police in enforcement, and the history behind their origination and recognize that abolition is the right and just choice if we are to become an inclusive and welcoming society for all.

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The Shriver Center on Poverty Law fights for economic and racial justice. Over our 50-year history, we have secured hundreds of victories with and for people living in poverty in Illinois and across the country. Today, we litigate, shape policy, and train and convene multi-state networks of lawyers, community leaders, and activists nationwide. Together, we are building a future where all people have equal dignity, respect, and power under the law. Join the fight at povertylaw.org. 

About the Author

Audra Wilson
Audra Wilson
Audra Wilson
President & CEO

312.854.3401

Eric Sirota
Eric Sirota
Eric Sirota
Director of Housing Justice

312.767.9273

Tex Pasley
Tex Pasley
Tex Pasley

312.549.9877

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