How Local Governments Use Nuisance Ordinances to Maintain Segregation

Crime-free nuisance ordinances do not make communities safer.

At the 50th Anniversary the Fair Housing Act, we find ourselves still living within a rigidly segregated society.

As we wrote earlier this month, little has been achieved in the way of integration in large part due to the federal government’s obstruction of it. But the federal government has also had many worthy partners in this effort, including local governments.

Over the last decade, predominantly white communities throughout the country have created a new way to maintain residential segregation: so-called crime-free and nuisance property ordinances.

These laws currently exist in an estimated 2,000 local municipalities across 44 states, and typically use low-level criminal offenses, municipal violations, or even calls to the police to trigger notification to a property owner that they must evict their tenants. Local law enforcement officers often serve as the “nuisance” or “crime-free” officers tasked with enforcing these laws. These laws also often require local landlords to deny people with criminal records from admissions, however minor.

While there has been broad national recognition of the harm these ordinances pose to survivors of domestic violence, there has been little effort to address what motivates municipal governments to adopt these laws in the first place.

These ordinances are often initiated as racial demographics in a community appear to change and racialized perceptions of increased crime follow. Some local governments are much more direct about their discriminatory bias, adopting the narratives often advanced by local governments using NIMBY-ist tactics to block affordable housing, such as stoking fears of “outsiders,” “transients,” or low-income residents.

Due to the documented racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the central role police play in the enforcing these ordinances creates the perfect storm. Arrests generated by discriminatory policing are fed into this civil eviction system. Because the threshold for enforcement is often no more than an arrest or call to the police, regardless of whether or not the criminal charge is dismissed, the role of law enforcement goes unchecked. Tenants generally have no idea why they are being evicted since few ordinances notify the tenants of ordinance violations. Landlords, fearing loss of their business, capitulate to the demand to evict the tenants. At the same time, landlords implicitly understand that they should not continue to rent to these “outsiders” and aggressively screen and exclude those applicants who have contact with the criminal justice system.

Just as the police legally reinforced racial boundaries prior to the passage of the Fair Housing Act, nuisance ordinances create an authorized means to push people of color out of a community or to keep them out.

As advocates and directly impacted people reform the criminal justice system and work to halt discriminatory policing, we must disconnect the civil justice system’s blanket reliance on the criminal system. Otherwise, the racial and ethnic disparities of the criminal justice system will continue to reduce access to stable housing and reinforce residential segregation.

Crime-free nuisance ordinances do not make communities safer.

This is particularly true when evictions are tied to contact with the police. At best, they discourage victims of crime from calling for help; at worst, they criminalize poverty and perpetuate racial inequalities. Local governments who do not get that message and who refuse to rescind crime-free and nuisance property ordinances must face the legal consequences of continuing to enforce these laws. And as a society, we must radically rethink what it means for all people to live in and be welcome in a community — the color of someone’s skin should not deem them a nuisance.

About the Author

Kate Walz
Kate Walz
Kate Walz
Vice President of Advocacy, Senior Director of Litigation, & Director of Housing Justice

312.368.2679

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