Imagine receiving a notice from your landlord that you are being evicted because city officials have determined that your conduct makes the property a “nuisance.” Perhaps your teenage child has stayed out past curfew one too many times causing your neighbors to complain. Or maybe your call to the police for life-saving help during a mental health crisis, drug overdose, or domestic violence incident has occurred more often than local officials would prefer. In many Ohio suburbs, if any of these scenarios happen more than once in a calendar year, your residence is at risk of being labeled a “nuisance.” This stigmatizing label isn’t the only thing you’ll receive. Property owners have to pay fines and fees, and tenants often face eviction.
Over the past 15 years, American suburbs have increasingly adopted Criminal Activity Nuisance Ordinances – or CANOs. These laws regulate activities that occur on or near residential properties by occupants and their guests. They disproportionately target renters, housing voucher recipients, and are often championed through the thinly veiled activation of racial and class stereotypes. Proponents boast about their ability to preserve the “character” and “middle class values” of the community. And the “nuisances” identified are rarely related to serious criminal activity; rather, they often point to disturbances and annoyances to long-standing residents’ expected ways of life. In this way, these laws are nothing more than a fear-based response to the rapid demographic change occurring in many inner-ring suburban communities.
Last November researchers at Cleveland State University, in conjunction with the ACLU of Ohio, released a report unveiling many of the issues with CANOs being adopted across our state. Among our many concerns is the reality that in some cities, tenants are excluded from options to contest the claims brought forth. Moreover, landlords are increasingly encouraged to adopt lease agreements that allow for automatic eviction of tenants whose conduct is determined by city officials to be a nuisance. In a system where formal eviction proceedings are already rarely contested, this exclusion of tenants in the dispute process merely exacerbates the vulnerability and dis-empowerment of those at risk of losing their housing.
We are also concerned with the lack of evidence of criminal activity needed to classify a property as a nuisance. For instance, in many suburbs, the mere suspicion of criminal activity is enough to trigger a nuisance classification; if the police have been called to a property multiple times, that property may be labeled a nuisance, even if the police discovered no criminal activity taking place when they arrived.
The ACLU of Ohio believes deeply that the due process rights of all citizens must be upheld. CANOs not only violate those constitutional rights, they do so in a way that further marginalizes groups that so frequently have to battle bias and discrimination: Racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, victims of assault and intimate partner violence, and people using federal subsidies to afford a better life for them and their family. Instead of pushing out new and diverse residents with these unjust and unconstitutional practices, suburban city officials should instead focus on how they can create a welcoming, inclusive, and safe community that prioritizes the well-being of all residents.