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Excerpted From: Alisha Jarwala, When Disability Is a “Nuisance”: How Chronic Nuisance Ordinances Push Residents with Disabilities out of Their Homes, 54 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 875 (Summer, 2019)(Student Note)(250 Footnotes)(Full Document)


AlishaJarwalaIn February 2017, Jane called 911 after her boyfriend threatened to commit suicide. The police responded, wrote a report, and left. But the next day, Jane's landlord got a fine and a form letter from the town's Chief of Police ordering the landlord to “abate the nuisance” created by Jane's 911 calls. Under threat of fines and a first-degree misdemeanor charge carrying a sentence of up to 180 days, the landlord began eviction proceedings against Jane--all because she called for help, fearing her boyfriend was suicidal.

Bedford Codified Ordinance 511.12 is a chronic nuisance ordinance (chronic nuisance ordinance), just one of a growing number of municipal laws that label a household a “nuisance” when it is the site of a certain number of calls to the police, responses by emergency services, or other incidents of alleged nuisance conduct. The city designated Jane's home a nuisance in December 2016, three days after another incident in which she called 911 because her boyfriend had threatened to commit suicide by taking pills. When Jane called 911 again in February for the same reason, the city noticed that the call came from a so-called “nuisance property;” her landlord was fined $250, and Jane lost her home.

Jane and her boyfriend are not alone. Many tenants are evicted due to chronic nuisance ordinances, local laws that punish vulnerable residents because their homes are the site of behavior that cities and towns designate a “nuisance, ” often including calls to 911. When a municipality labels a home a nuisance, landlords are encouraged-- or, like Jane's landlord, legally required--to “abate the nuisance.” Civil rights attorneys report that “[m]any landlords respond by evicting the tenant[, ]... refusing to renew the lease[, ]” or urging tenants not to call 911 for help. For tenants like Jane, chronic nuisance ordinances create an impossible choice between risking eviction and forgoing help for a loved one in crisis. This Note will examine the serious threat that chronic nuisance ordinances pose to fair housing, especially for individuals with physical and mental disabilities. Part I explores the history, background, and features of chronic nuisance ordinances.

Part II presents a series of case studies, drawn from chronic nuisance ordinance enforcement actions within the last five years, that illustrate the severe, disparate impact chronic nuisance ordinances have on people with disabilities.

Part III argues that chronic nuisance ordinances' adverse impact is likely underreported and considers structural reasons for this disparity.

Parts IV through VII argue that chronic nuisance ordinances violate both landmark civil rights laws and the Constitution, especially when enforced against people with disabilities.

Part VIII examines state and federal reforms that may blunt nuisance ordinances' discriminatory impact, but which are ultimately insufficient, and recommends that local legislatures repeal chronic nuisance ordinances entirely.

[. . .]

Chronic nuisance ordinances have pernicious effects and make communities more dangerous for people with disabilities. This Note has examined situations where people with disabilities have to make an impossible choice between risking eviction or foregoing potentially life-saving medical help, where chronic nuisance ordinance enforcement has put group homes at risk, and where municipalities have refused to grant reasonable accommodation exceptions to individuals with disabilities trying to maintain their properties. People with disabilities already face greater housing instability than the general population chronic nuisance ordinances exacerbate this problem.

chronic nuisance ordinance enforcement directly violates civil rights law and constitutional rights. chronic nuisance ordinances violate the FHAA because they have an adverse, disparate impact on people with disabilities and, in some jurisdictions, may be enforced in a discriminatory manner. They violate the ADA because they are an illegal denial of a public entity's services to people with disabilities. They violate the constitutional right to petition for services under the First Amendment. More broadly, through the enforcement of chronic nuisance ordinances, jurisdictions are violating their affirmative duty to reasonably accommodate the people with disabilities in their communities. Legislative reforms and HUD guidance may blunt some of the effects of chronic nuisance ordinances by requiring exemptions, but these limited remedies are far from sufficient. chronic nuisance ordinances unjustly punish people with disabilities simply for having a disability, frustrating the core purpose of fair housing law--and must be repealed entirely.


J.D. Candidate, Harvard Law School, 2020; B.A., Yale University, 2015.