Nuisance, Criminal History, and Housing Discrimination

In many cities, one of the sources of homelessness for many people is nuisance ordinances that fine landlords if there are too many police calls to a property. Desmond and Valdez’s 2013 article “Unpolicing the Urban Poor: Consequences of Third-Party Policing for Inner-City Women” published in the American Sociological Review (volume 78) analyzed every nuisance citation in Milwaukee over a two-year period. Key findings are that nearly a third of these involved domestic violence, a nuisance that was generally “abated” by evicting a battered woman. Nuisance citations were more common in Black neighborhoods, especially more-integrated Black neighborhoods.

Another is the practice of screening potential tenants for criminal records. Even if there was an arrest with no conviction, and even if the conviction was a long time ago, police in many areas, including Madison, “encourage” landlords to screen tenants for criminal records as a way to reduce “crime problems” in neighborhoods. As homelessness makes it harder to keep a job and avoid relapse into addiction, as well as exposes a person to increase crime victimization and more arrests for violation of loitering ordinances, the impact of these policies is to create a stigmatized population that is simply not allowed to live anywhere.

The ACLU is investigating Madison’s police department for disparate racial impact in its housing-related policies, including nuisance citations, encouraging landlords to do background checks, and requiring landlords to have “no visitor” policies for troubled properties, policies that greatly hinder tenants’ ability to maintain contact with important support networks, including family members and the no-resident parents of children. News story about Madison.


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