Victims’ Dilemma: 911 Calls Can Bring Eviction... Even In Cases Of Domestic Violence

NORRISTOWN, Pa. — The police had warned Lakisha Briggs: one more altercation at her rented row house here, one more call to 911, and they would force her landlord to evict her.

They could do so under the town’s “nuisance property” ordinance, a law intended to protect neighborhoods from seriously disruptive households. Officials can invoke the measure and pressure landlords to act if the police have been called to a rental home three times within four months.       

So she faced a fearful dilemma, Ms. Briggs recalled, when her volatile boyfriend showed up last summer, fresh out of a jail stint for their previous fight, and demanded to move in.       

“I had no choice but to let him stay,” said Ms. Briggs, 34, a certified nursing assistant, even though, she said in an interview, she worried about the safety of her 3-year-old daughter as well as her own.       

“If I called the police to get him out of my house, I’d get evicted,” she said. “If I physically tried to remove him, somebody would call 911 and I’d be evicted.”       

Over the last 25 years, in a trend still growing, hundreds of cities and towns across the country have adopted nuisance property or “crime-free housing” ordinances. Putting responsibility on landlords to weed out drug dealers and disruptive tenants, the laws aim to save neighborhoods from blight as well as ease burdens on the police.       

But the laws are sometimes forcing victims, especially women facing domestic violence, to choose between calling the police and holding on to their homes, according to legal aid groups and experts on housing and the poor.       

“These laws threaten citizens’ fundamental right to call on the police for help,” said Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Harvard.       

In a study of citations issued to landlords in Milwaukee, conducted with Nicol Valdez of Columbia University, Mr. Desmond found that domestic violence was involved in nearly one-third of the cases and that rentals in largely black areas were disproportionately singled out.       

Legal experts say the laws can give tenants the lasting stain of an eviction record without due process.       

In a federal lawsuit being watched by legal aid groups elsewhere, Ms. Briggs has challenged the Norristown ordinance as unconstitutional.       

She did so after her fears were realized.       

In June 2012, days after her ex-boyfriend, Wilbert Bennett, moved into her house in this struggling town northwest of Philadelphia, he started another drunken, late-night argument. Then came his most violent attack yet: an assault with a broken ashtray that left a gash on her head and a four-inch stab wound in her neck.       

Before she passed out, Ms. Briggs begged her neighbor not to call 911 because of the eviction threat, according to the suit, which is being argued by the American Civil Liberties Union.       

The neighbor called anyway. Ms. Briggs was taken by helicopter to Philadelphia for emergency treatment. Mr. Bennett is now serving a sentence of one to two years for aggravated assault.       

And Norristown officials instructed her landlord to evict her within 10 days or lose his rental license.       

“I was afraid I’d lose my house, my job and, what’s next, my daughter?” Ms. Briggs recalled.       

A legal aid lawyer put her in touch with the A.C.L.U., and the city backed away from the eviction demand. Ms. Briggs moved anyway, to a location she hopes Mr. Bennett will not discover when he is released.

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Replies to This Discussion

It seems to be the trend that if you call the police, you will end up in trouble or possibly even getting arrested yourself. I bet Ms. Briggs did not own a handgun to protect herself from the likes of Mr. Bennett.

I live near Norristown and while police are usually polite in the philly burbs they are prejudice as all hell. Cops aren't supposed to hold grudges right?

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