Rethinking ‘Crime-Free’ Laws: Scrutiny Grows as Discrimination Against Mental Health Persists

Topeka, Kansas – The use of “crime-free” or “public nuisance” laws by communities across the United States has come under increasing scrutiny for potential mental health discrimination. These laws, which allow landlords to evict tenants when there are repeated calls to police or emergency crews, have long been criticized for their ineffectiveness and harsh enforcement in poor neighborhoods and against people of color. However, now there are concerns that these ordinances may also discriminate against individuals with mental health disabilities.

In November of last year, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a groundbreaking finding, declaring that the enforcement of a crime-free law in a Minneapolis suburb was illegally discriminatory against people with mental health disabilities. This finding marked a turning point and sparked a growing movement among cities and jurisdictions to reexamine, revise, or even repeal these laws in response to mounting criticism and lawsuits.

Crime-free and nuisance ordinances have been widely adopted across the country, with over 2,000 cities in the United States and 3,000 international cities implementing such policies since the 1990s. Under these ordinances, landlords can face fines or lose their rental licenses if they fail to evict tenants engaging in activities deemed a public nuisance, such as drug sales or suspected criminal behavior. Additionally, landlords may be required to screen potential tenants and limit the number of occupants in a home or apartment. However, there is significant variation in the specific provisions and criteria across these ordinances, as well as ambiguity regarding what constitutes a public nuisance.

Critics argue that the subjective nature of these ordinances allows for discrimination against certain groups, particularly those with mental health disabilities. Federal fair housing laws prohibit landlords from inquiring about disabilities or refusing to rent to individuals on that basis. Nevertheless, many crime-free laws mandate that landlords screen rental applicants, often relying on the same officials who determine whether calls for assistance or an individual’s demeanor will count against the tenant or landlord. Moreover, some jurisdictions share detailed information about these calls with landlords, exacerbating the issue.

One example of the repercussions of these laws can be seen in Hesperia, California, where a resident was forced to leave her home and seek temporary shelter in a motel after calling for help during her boyfriend’s mental health crisis. The city’s ordinance required landlords to have potential tenants’ applications screened by the local sheriff’s office, which then shared a list of potentially troublesome renters with landlords. Advocates argue that these laws perpetuate reluctance to rent to individuals with mental health histories, exacerbating homelessness and a cycle between institutions and shelters.

Additionally, enforcement of these ordinances tends to disproportionately target poorer neighborhoods and communities of color. Studies and lawsuits have consistently shown that “no crime” and “public nuisance” laws are vigorously enforced in these areas. For example, a report from the American Civil Liberties Union and New York Civil Liberties Union revealed that the most robust enforcement of these laws occurred in poor and heavily minority areas in Rochester and Troy, New York. Lawsuits in Peoria, Illinois, and Hesperia, California, uncovered similar patterns, where neighborhoods with larger percentages of residents of color experienced a higher number of nuisance citations.

Efforts are underway to challenge and limit the reach of these ordinances. Maryland recently passed legislation prohibiting cities and counties from penalizing landlords based on the number of police or emergency calls to their properties. California has also enacted significant limitations on the use of crime-free policies by cities. Housing advocates and civil liberties groups have initiated legal challenges to these ordinances in various states, leading to revisions or repeals in settlement agreements. Some communities have taken independent action, with cities like Golden Valley, St. Louis Park, and Bloomington in the Minneapolis area repealing most or all of their ordinances, while others have revised their laws following legal settlements.

The use of “crime-free” or “public nuisance” laws may face an uncertain future as concerns about their potential to discriminate against individuals with mental health disabilities continue to grow. The evolving landscape suggests a need for legislation that strikes a balance between maintaining safe communities and protecting the rights of all residents.