York could revive nuisance program critics say puts domestic violence victims at risk

Maria Yohn
York Dispatch
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A York City councilman wants to resurrect a plan to crack down on "nuisance properties" in the city, but the initiative might unleash a dormant controversy over whether the program puts domestic abuse victims at risk.

City Council President Henry Nixon said the council continues to hear complaints regarding "nuisance properties," or properties that continually require a police presence to curb criminal activity. 

The city addressed this problem several years ago by establishing a nuisance abatement program, he said, but it hasn't been enforced in recent years, as no employees have been available to keep accurate records.

In this file photo, York City Councilman Henry Nixon gives the first responders memorial tribute during the 2016 Court of Valor & Safekeepers Shrine Ceremony with York's Observance of the 15th Anniversary of 9/11 at Prospect Hill Cemetery in North York, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Nixon is advocating hiring a part-time employee to fulfill that responsibility, and if that's not financially feasible, the city could assign the responsibility to a current city employee, he said.

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The current plan:  Article 1751, the city's nuisance abatement plan, functions via a points system.

A property receives points each time a police officer responds to criminal activity there. According to the plan, a property that racks up 12 or more points in six months, or 18 or more points in 12 months, may be shut down by the city. 

Criminal violations receive a specific number of points based on the severity of the violation.

For example, eight points are assigned for sexual offenses and instances of organized crime and six points for offenses such as reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of children. Four points are assigned for noise complaints, disorderly conduct, public drunkenness and similar violations. 

A conviction is not required for points. Rather, police must establish a "preponderance of evidence" showing that a crime occurred at that location. 

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After a violation, property owners receive a notice explaining why the points have been assigned and are asked to address the situation to prevent future police visits, which include terminating "the lease of any tenant who is permitting or maintaining the nuisance activity on the property," according to the plan.

In 2012, an ordinance was added to the plan allowing for a written agreement between the city and the property owner. In that case, the property owner may agree to take specific, city-approved actions to "abate, terminate or eliminate the public nuisance" in exchange for the city dropping disciplinary action against the property.  

Legal challenges: The city's abatement plan, in its current form, is a minefield of potential legal and ethical ramifications, according to Rachel Pinsker, legal services manager for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

"The ordinance is really concerning," she said.

Pinsker said the city's current plan immediately reminded her of a nuisance abatement plan that existed in Norristown, Pennsylvania. The plan no longer exists, she said, because it became the subject of a lawsuit that garnered national attention in 2013, in the case of Briggs v. Borough of Norristown. 

The lawsuit was the first filed by the ACLU on behalf of a domestic violence victim who was warned by police that one strike was placed against her landlord's property after she called 911 to report an assault by her ex-boyfriend, who no longer lived with her.

The victim was reluctant to call 911 after that for fear of losing housing for herself and her young daughter. When her abuser returned and cut her throat with a broken ashtray, she stumbled out onto the street in an attempt to avoid another police visit to the property.

Neighbors called 911 on her behalf, and when she was released from the hospital, her landlord evicted her, according to the ACLU.

A settlement was reached in 2014 in which the city was required to pay $495,000 in damages. It repealed its ordinance, but the case was only the beginning for the ACLU, which has been pursuing similar cases in the years since. 

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Statistics:  According to Pinsker, there is a strong connection between domestic violence and homelessness, and nuisance abatement plans only exacerbate the problem. 

A 2013 study out of Milwaukee examined the impact of a city's nuisance ordinance. In the study, researchers analyzed every nuisance citation issued in the city over a two-year period and found that nearly a third of the citaitons were the result of 911 calls from a domestic violence victim. 

In the 157 citation letters connected to domestic violence incidents, 56 included the landlord's response. In 57 percent of the cases, the victim was evicted, and in 83 percent of the cases, landlords relied on either eviction or the threat of eviction to deter future 911 calls, researchers found. 

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A no-win situation: An equal concern is the no-win situation domestic violence victims are placed in when they have to choose between possible eviction or remaining at the mercy of their abusers, Pinsker said.

"They know if they call the police and they come, they could be evicted," she said. 

Often, the abusers don't even live with the victim but continue to stalk them long after the victim leaves them. If children are involved, the matter becomes even more dire and complicated, Pinsker said. 

Current protections: In recent years, steps have been taken to protect abuse victims who are at risk of losing their housing.

In 2014, Pennsylvania passed legislation stating that landlords can't discriminate against domestic abuse victims  Also, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development prohibits sex-based discrimination, and the Violence Against Women Act prohibits discrimination against domestic violence victims in public and subsidized housing.

However, Pinsker says that these laws are not self-implementing, and typically, a victim has to file a lawsuit after the fact. This can be problematic for victims who lack knowledge about their rights and access to attorneys.

"They may not have the resources to fight it," she said. 

Moving forward: Pinsker emphasized that police and local governments need to consider the "chilling effect" nuisance abatement policies can have on victims who require the help of police.

"It could result in the victim's death at the hand of the abuser," she said.

Nixon said that he is aware of the concerns raised by domestic violence organizations in the years since the city's abatement plan was enforced, and he said the council will be consulting with its solicitor to address any areas that put abuse victims at risk.

"We'll certainly try to look at it carefully," he said. "It's most certainly an unintended consequence."

City solicitor Donald Hoyt did not return calls seeking comment.