Your Housing or Your Life: The Supreme Court Faces the Question of Whether Federal Law Precludes Landlords from Imposing This Choice on Domestic Violence Victims

If you are being watched, leave now!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

What do Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee have in common? In this case, the answer has nothing to do with their geographic location or their size. Instead, it has to do with the fact that, in recent years, each has seen fit to enact nuisance ordinances with severely negative effects on domestic violence victims. Until now, victims who suffered those effects could seek protection under the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”), a federal law that bars housing discrimination, by arguing that policies with disproportionately negative impact on domestic violence victims constitute sex discrimination under that statute. A case the Supreme Court has chosen to decide this term, however, may change that. In particular, in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs vs. The Inclusive Communities Project, the oral argument for which is scheduled for tomorrow, the Supreme Court will decide whether this argument will continue to be available to victims who find themselves without housing when they seek police intervention against their abusers.

The devastating connection between homelessness and domestic violence is well known and enduring. As far back as 2005, Congress recognized that 92 percent of homeless women have experienced domestic and/or sexual abuse at some point in their lives. The most recent report of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a comprehensive survey of homelessness across America’s largest cities, tells a similar story by identifying domestic violence as one of the continued leading causes of homelessness. In cities that have enacted nuisance ordinances, this connection is likely to be even stronger.

What is a nuisance ordinance and how does it relate to domestic violence? Under the terms of a typical ordinance, property owners face fines if calls for police service made by someone on their property exceed a certain number within a set period of time. Before being fined, property owners are usually given the opportunity to “abate” the nuisance by coming up with a plan for eliminating it. And if that “nuisance” is a tenant who has called the police one too many times because he/she is a victim of domestic violence, the typical abatement plan contemplates the victim’s eviction.

The 2013 study of the effects of the Milwaukee nuisance ordinance conducted by Matthew Desmond and Nicol Valdez demonstrates just how disproportionate an effect nuisance ordinances can have on domestic violence victims. After analyzing every nuisance citation issued in the city over a two-year period, the study found that nearly a third of the citations resulted from domestic violence victims’ 911 calls. In addition, citations were most likely to be issued against properties in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, making women of color who had suffered domestic violence the most likely candidates for eviction.

As the brief Legal Momentum has filed—together with the ACLU and a number of other organizations—in Inclusive Communities explains, a number of states have made the effort to safeguard victims’ rights by passing laws that bar landlords from evicting, or refusing to rent to, a tenant for being a victim of domestic violence. Nonetheless, for victims who live in a state that has not enacted any housing protections for domestic violence victims, the FHA can be the only recourse against the landlord. And the FHA can be of particular importance if the victim lives in a city that has enacted a chronic nuisance ordinance. The Inclusive Communities case gives the Supreme Court an important opportunity to reaffirm that remedy and safeguard victims’ right not to be forced to choose between their safety and a roof over their heads. Let’s hope the Court seizes that opportunity. 

Contributed by Staff Attorney Jelena Kolic