Thelma Jones is a Black woman who lives in Faribault, Minnesota. After five years in her home, Jones’s landlord informed her in 2016 that she and her children had two weeks to move out. The police had charged the landlord with a misdemeanor for violating the town’s “crime-free” housing ordinance because he failed to evict Jones after the police had responded to complaints at her home 82 times. The police characterized Jones’s home as a location of “ongoing criminal activity.”
In fact, Jones and her children did not have any criminal convictions. But the police had repeatedly come to her home because of calls to the police by her white neighbors. On one occasion, police responded to calls because Jones was hosting a family barbecue. On another occasion, police were called when Jones hosted a child’s birthday party. Police even responded to calls when her children were outside playing on their trampoline. Ms. Jones and her family were evicted not because they were engaged in criminal activity on or off her property, but because she was a Black woman who was unwelcome by her predominantly white neighbors.
Faribault’s crime-free housing ordinance gave those neighbors and the police the tools they needed to expel Jones and her family from their home and their community.
Jones’s experience is not unique. Since the early 1990s, crime-free housing ordinances have spread to thousands of towns and cities across the United States, used by the police—and those who call the police—to target both tenants and landlords alike. Purportedly designed to reduce crime, promote public safety, and preserve police resources, these laws have instead proven a powerful tool to impose racial segregation, threatening the health and safety of disproportionately Black and brown people who are displaced from their homes.
What is a Crime-Free Housing Ordinance?
So-called “crime-free” housing ordinances (also referred to as nuisance property ordinances) take different forms, but at their core they are local laws or programs that either encourage or require private landlords to evict tenants who have had varying levels of contact with the criminal legal system, or to reject those tenants for housing in the first place. Generally, these laws penalize tenants if they or their guests engage in certain conduct or if they make frequent calls to the police—tenants become a “nuisance” if the police respond to a certain address too frequently. These local policies have the purported goal of stemming crime in rental housing. However, they are more effective at excluding racial minorities and promoting racial segregation than they are at preventing crime.
In their most problematic form, crime-free housing ordinances apply to merely alleged criminal activity, and allow police officers to decide whether a potential tenant’s criminal history disqualifies them from rental housing in the community. Indeed, a common crime-free lease addendum explicitly states that proof of violation shall not require a criminal conviction. This creates the possibility that a mere arrest—or even a stop that results in neither arrest nor conviction—might be sufficient to evict someone from their home.
These ordinances can also prohibit houseguests with criminal records, putting tenants at risk of eviction even if they have no records of their own. Landlords are often required to perform criminal background checks on rental applicants and may face increased licensing fees or lose their authorization to rent property altogether if they fail to act on police determinations that certain tenants are a nuisance. The laws thus force evictions even when a landlord wants tenants to stay.
In Granite City, Illinois, for example, Jessica Barron and her family were reportedly evicted in 2019 because one of her son’s teenage friends turned up at their home after he allegedly burglarized a local bar. Barron asked her son to call the police when she discovered the teenager inside, but that was not enough. Her landlord did not want the family to leave, but the city’s crime-free ordinance forced them out.
Crime-Free Ordinances Harm People Who Seek Help
Crime-free ordinances penalize landlords and tenants for frequent police calls regardless of who makes them. In Jones’s case, it was her white neighbors who were suspicious of Black people socializing in the yard. But it can also be victims of domestic violence, or other people in need of help, calling the police to their own home in search of protection.
In his 2016 book Evicted, Matthew Desmond describes how Milwaukee police in 2008 and 2009 issued nuisance citations to landlords every 33 hours, with domestic violence as the third-most common “nuisance activity,” exceeding the total number of all other assault, disorderly conduct, and drug charges combined. In Milwaukee, nuisance citations followed calls from pregnant women who were beaten, from one woman who had bleach thrown in her face, and from another woman who said her boyfriend sprayed her with lighter fluid and then lit a piece of paper on fire.
Landlords avoided sanctions by assuring the Milwaukee Police Department that they took steps to abate the “nuisance.” One wrote: “First, we are evicting Sheila M, the caller for help from the police. She has been beaten by her ‘man’ who kicks in doors and goes to jail for 1 or 2 days . . . We suggested she obtain a gun and kill him in self defense, but evidently she hasn’t. Therefore we are evicting her.”
The police response: “Your written course of action is accepted.”
The ordinances also victimize others in need of help, including people with mental illness. In 2018, the city of Bedford, Ohio, fined a mother $250 because she sought assistance when her daughter who has bipolar disorder experienced a crisis. Between 2016 and 2017, according to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, Bedford “repeatedly used the [crime-free] Ordinance to harass a group home for children with disabilities” after staff sought help during a medical emergency involving a child who hit his head and “got his eye split open.” The city fined the home $250 and threatened to criminally prosecute and fine the property owners if the home required further police assistance.
The Origins of Crime-Free Housing Laws
Crime-free ordinances have their roots in the law enforcement community and are historically police-sponsored programs. The first ordinances were created by the International Crime Free Association, an organization founded in 1992 by a member of the Mesa Police Department in Arizona. The stated goal of the ICFA is to use “law enforcement-based crime prevention” to keep illegal activity off of rental property. The ICFA has successfully spread the adoption of crime-free ordinances across the United States.
The first ordinances were created in 1992. According to one estimate, approximately 2,000 municipalities across 48 states have adopted such ordinances to date. In California, for example, almost one third of local governments have a crime-free ordinance or program.
The Latest Innovation In Exclusionary Housing Policies
Crime-free housing ordinances are part of a legacy of local laws and policies used to perpetuate racial segregation in housing, policies which have outlived both chattel slavery and Jim Crow. In this way, crime-free housing policies are only the newest tool among many that American communities have developed to define who is allowed to live within them. In the modern era, exclusionary covenants, redlining, restrictive public housing rules, racist highway development and public transportation policies, along with intimidation, violence, and harassment by both private citizens and local law enforcement, are among the many effective tools that have been used to promote and entrench racial segregation, often facilitated by federal law and policy.
But as federal, state, and local laws, including the Fair Housing Act of 1968, have made it more difficult to legally exclude people of color from historically white communities, localities have found new ways to promote racial exclusion. Crime-free ordinances are a new, increasingly popular, and disturbingly effective tool.
Crime-Free Ordinances Promote Racial Segregation
Despite increased racial diversity in America, extreme residential segregation persists, with profound effects for Black and Latinx people. By linking housing policy to the brutal efficiency and racism of mass criminalization, crime-free housing ordinances risk profound damage to the physical, economic, and psychological well-being of their victims. Though formally race neutral, these laws promote racial segregation in substantial ways.
A recent Los Angeles Times report found that as communities diversify, crime-free ordinances often follow: Among the 20 California cities with the largest increase in Black residents since 1990, the Times found that 85 percent had adopted such policies. For the cities with the largest bump in Latinx residents, that number was 75 percent.
The discrimination also bears out in enforcement. Reviewing data for four of California’s five largest cities—Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, and Sacramento—the Times found that from 2015 to 2019 nearly 80 percent of those who faced eviction were not white. In Oakland, Black residents were targeted for eviction at a rate double their proportion in the general renter population.
That crime-free housing ordinances disproportionately exclude people of color from renting should come as no surprise. Using involvement with the criminal legal system (however tangential) to decide who can live in a community means that the extreme racial disparities throughout the criminal legal system get baked into housing policy as well. The breadth of crime-free ordinances further heightens these disparities. The exclusions are based not only on convictions but, by design and implementation, on any contact with the criminal legal system—from convictions, to arrests, to stops and mere suspicion. Functionally, crime-free housing laws incorporate all the racism of the criminal legal system, but none of its due process protections.
This problem occurs against a backdrop of mass criminalization in the United States. Over 10 million people are arrested every year. Four million people are currently on probation, parole, or otherwise under the control of the criminal legal system without being incarcerated. Mass criminalization has attached criminal sanctions to spitting in public places, violating subway rules, sleeping in public places, jaywalking, riding a bike on the sidewalk, and removing trash from a bin. The result is that the criminal legal system that intersects with our lives frequently and harshly.
At the same time, mass criminalization is permeated with racial bias. Indeed, the narrative linking race and crime has endured for centuries. Through racialized narratives, negative labeling and stereotyping, and media coverage, Americans’ fear of crime has always been intertwined with America’s fear of Black people. Crime-free housing ordinances, in turn, weaponize that fear.
As Jones experienced in Minnesota, crime-free housing policies can also lead to exclusions or evictions when community members who are suspicious or resentful of people of color weaponize the local police. The phrase “Living While Black” has been used to encompass the innumerable ways that people of color, and Black people in particular, are viewed with suspicion and required to justify their presence in spaces where they are seen as not belonging. When in traditionally white spaces, Black people are often required to provide justification and proof—to police or other citizens—that they belong. Calling the police based on suspicions about Black people poses numerous risks to the health and safety of those being policed, including the sort of law enforcement contacts and “criminal records” that are used to justify housing exclusion. That is what happened to Jones. By repeatedly calling the police on a Black neighbor who they did not want in “their” community, Jones’s white tormentors eventually got their wish.
Legal Challenges to Crime-Free Ordinances
In federal lawsuits across the country, tenants, landlords, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have challenged crime-free ordinances and their enforcement, citing violations of fair housing laws, equal protection, due process, and the First Amendment right to free association.
Barron and her landlord sued Granite City, Illinois, after city police ordered her eviction because her son’s teenage friend allegedly burglarized a local bar. Facing this and another civil rights lawsuit, Granite City amended its ordinance to permit eviction only when off-site criminal activity results in a conviction. Still, the plaintiffs continue to argue that eviction based on the crimes of someone else is a violation of their constitutional rights.
In 2017, the HOPE Fair Housing Center filed a federal housing discrimination lawsuit against the City of Peoria, Illinois, alleging that enforcement of its chronic nuisance ordinance intentionally targeted victims of domestic violence as well as buildings and neighborhoods with a majority of Black residents. Under an August 2020 settlement, the city amended the ordinance to include due process and anti-retaliation protections, and dedicated resources to a Re-Housing Fund to help tenants who lose housing when buildings are deemed unfit.
In 2020, Bedford, Ohio—whose nuisance ordinance disproportionately harmed low-income households, people of color, women, and people struggling with mental illness—settled a federal lawsuit by paying $350,000 in damages, repealing the ordinance, and working with community organizations on fair housing training.
The DOJ has also found that crime-free ordinances violate the Fair Housing Act. In 2019, the DOJ sued the City of Hesperia, California and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department over an ordinance designed to address what one city councilor called a “demographical problem”—that is, “the city’s increasing African American and Latino population.” When enforcing the law, according to the lawsuit, “the Sheriff’s Department exercised its substantial discretion in enforcement to target African American and Latino renters and majority-minority areas of Hesperia,” and ordered the evictions of entire families “for conduct involving one tenant or even non-tenants, evictions of victims of domestic violence, and evictions based on mere allegations and without evidence of criminal activity.”
The Urgency of Challenging Crime-Free Ordinances
Recent years have seen growing momentum for reforms that disentangle the criminal legal system from areas such as employment and voting, efforts that have mitigated the collateral harms of a system that is inherently unequal. But, for the most part, we have not explored the ways in which contact with the criminal legal system impacts access to housing. Indeed, the spread of crime-free housing ordinances is a move in the wrong direction, because those ordinances provide an already racist criminal legal system with a broader province of impact and influence, both ideologically and functionally.
Ideologically, the normative values of the criminal legal system are infiltrating housing determinations. Specifically, housing policy is adopting the policing-based values of exclusion and punishment, and treating applicants and tenants as suspects, blurring the line between housing determinations and policing.
Functionally, crime-free housing policies give police officers outsized power to determine who can and cannot live in certain communities. These policies essentially allow police officers to pick and choose who may live in their community simply by making the practically unreviewable assertion that an applicant or tenant engaged in illegal activity. Ultimately, the denial of housing is used to punish “criminalized people”—both those with meaningful criminal legal system contacts and, increasingly, those without. The consequences for those excluded can be devastating.