A tenant in Surprise, Arizona is suing the town for passing a “nuisance” rental ordinance that forced her landlord to evict the woman for calling the police for help.
Lawyers for the ACLU and a private law firm have joined forced to represent the tenant. The single mother and domestic violence survivor says she was further victimized by the town’s rental law that can require landlords to evict tenants who make more than the allotted number of calls to police.
The ordinance provides that a landlord may be ordered to “abate” a “nuisance” if police receive four or more calls to the same address within a 30-day period, or repeated reports of criminal activity which “negatively impacts the quality of life” of those in the area. The law makes no express exceptions for crime victims, and provides that police may invoke the law if “the tenant allows any offense to occur.”
Over the course of about six months, the tenant’s ex-boyfriend abused and threatened her. She called police whenever she felt she was in physical danger. The police responded by notifying her landlord about the frequent calls for help, and pushed the landlord to initiate an eviction.
In addition to violating the woman’s right to seek police protection, lawyers argue that the nuisance law violates the Fair Housing Act’s prohibitions on discrimination.
City officials passed the ordinance in 2010 over the objections of legal experts who warned that it may burden victims of crimes, particularly in domestic violence situations. Landlords who do not cooperate can wind up in serious legal trouble.
ACLU of Arizona argues that these local nuisance laws, which are found across the country and have grown more common over the past few years, have been shown to disproportionately impact minorities and those with mental disabilities. Opponents say these rules also undermine public safety as a whole. Some tenants have reported that they hesitate before calling for help out of fear that they will become homeless, and some landlords have taken flak for discouraging tenants from calling 911.
In a similar case, officials in Norristown, Pennsylvania agreed to pay a settlement to the victim of a nearly-fatal domestic abuse incident because police had warned her that another call for help could result in an eviction. Officials also agreed to repeal the nuisance ordinance as a condition of the settlement.
Landlords subject to these nuisance laws are in a difficult position. The eviction may violate the Fair Housing Act. Evictions are not cheap, and there’s no guarantee the eviction court will grant the order for possession. Yet, violating the local ordinance carries significant penalties, such as daily fines until the offending tenant is removed. In addition to fines, local officials may have the right to pull the landlord’s rental license and take the property out of service.
Similar anti-crime rules actually can increase risks for landlords by over-simplifying tenant screening. For instance, the Arizona ordinance also requires landlords to include a crime-free addendum in all lease agreements. While this addendum is likely a good idea, it alone may not be enough. Landlords must still rely on tenant screening reports to screen out tenants who are a bad risk. Training by local police and on-site risk management assessments increase the effectiveness of a crime-free leasing program.
Likewise, some nuisance ordinances mandate criminal background checks which are then provided by local police. This generic approach can lull landlords into a false sense of confidence. These reports may only show local activity, where the criminal behavior could have occurred in another state — or just down the road in the next town.
This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post in not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.