Lawsuit alleges Maplewood 'nuisance ordinance' discriminates against minority residents

Mar 14, 2017

The city of Maplewood faces a federal lawsuit for alleged discriminatory housing practices against black and disabled residents and victims of domestic violence.

The city's "chronic nuisance ordinance," which was instituted in 2006, is enforced "selectively" and ignores "similar conduct" by residents who aren't African-American, according to the lawsuit filed late Monday by the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, or EHOC.

The suit, which claims the municipality's practices violate the federal Fair Housing Act, especially after guidance issued last year by the Obama administration, is based on 43 instances of home evictions since 2011, said Sasha Samberg-Champion, an attorney for Relman, Dane & Colfax PLLC, which is representing EHOC in the lawsuit.

“Although African-American residents are only 17 percent of the city, more than half of all the actions we've found have been taken against African-American residents,” he said Tuesday citing documents obtained by recent open record requests to the city.

The city of Maplewood had not received a copy of the lawsuit as of Tuesday afternoon, so it was unable to comment, a spokeswoman said. 

In recent years, other municipalities in St. Louis County have also faced lawsuits and investigations for alleged discriminatory practices involving local police departments and court systems. Following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded Ferguson’s police department and municipal court routinely violated the civil rights of citizens in a pattern or practice of racial bias.

Last December, the Justice Department and the St. Louis County Family Court reached a deal to settle claims that the court routinely violated the civil rights of juveniles it served. The Justice Department also found that black children in the court were routinely punished more harshly than white children, even when taking the severity of the crime into account.

According to a news release announcing the lawsuit, that Maplewood’s “chronic nuisance ordinance” disproportionately affects minorities is not unique.

“Thousands of local governments across the country have enacted nuisance property or crime-free ordinances under the guise of advancing public safety,” said Kate Walz, Director of Housing Justice at the Shriver Center and a national expert on such laws. “In reality, these laws undermine public safety by forcing crime victims to suffer in silence and criminalizing renters, especially those who are people of color, for non-criminal activity. Local governments should consider other, more legal methods for improving public safety, such as working directly with renters as partners to improve the quality and safety of their housing.”   

Using the ordinance, the suit said, Maplewood revoked the occupancy permit of people who are the "subject of multiple police calls, regardless of whether they did anything wrong," including victims of domestic violence or people in need of city services. A nuisance can be defined as two calls to police within an 180-day period, the lawsuit said.

The EHOC said it looked at ordinance-enforcement records over five years, noting that black residents were far more likely to be affected than white people. It also said more than a quarter of the people who were stripped of their occupancy permit during the timeframe had mental illness or a disability.

The ordinance at issue (Sec. 34-240) reads: 

"The city manager or his designee shall effect the abatement of the nuisance by any measures necessary to cause its cessation and the prevention of its recurrence, including the ordering of revocation of occupancy permits for the persons residing at the dwelling or place of business where the nuisance has occurred and the denial of occupancy permits within the city to those persons for a period not to exceed six months, or the closure of the premise where the nuisance has occurred for a period not to exceed six months."

Follow Joseph on Twitter: @joemikeleahy

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