Chronic nuisance ordinances are forcing people with disabilities out of their homes


Emily Doe was nearly exiled from Maplewood, Missouri, because crisis hotline volunteers sent police to her home too many times within one year.

Emily, who’s bipolar and suffers from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, called a crisis hotline because she was suicidal. Crisis volunteers sent emergency personnel to her house on three different occasions, and in one instance, she was taken to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation and treatment.

For doing what’s medically recommended — that is, calling for help — Emily received a citation and summons from the City of Maplewood to attend an ordinance enforcement hearing for “generating too many calls for police services.” Had the city determined her a “chronic nuisance,” officials would have not only evicted Emily but revoked her occupancy permit, effectively exiling her from the community for at least six months.

“It’s just so callous it’s hard to believe,” said Sejal Singh, co-author of a new paper titled “When Disability Is a ‘Nuisance’” and published Monday in Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.

The paper elevates the experiences of Emily and others with disabilities who fell prey to chronic nuisance ordinances within the last five years, while offering a comprehensive look into how local laws arguably violate the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the U.S. Constitution. The authors collected this information through public records requests of enforcement records, call logs, and police reports from municipalities throughout the Midwest. They used pseudonyms to respect the privacy of people affected.

Approximately 2,000 municipalities in the United States have chronic nuisance ordinances on the books, and they vary by locality. The ordinances are usually vague, sometimes defining nuisance behavior as whatever city officials decide is an “annoyance” or “inconvenience.” A majority of laws rely on an “excessive” number of 911 calls to make that determination. The authors of the new study found that “vague definitions enable discriminatory enforcement.”

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