Nuisance ordinances have been commonplace across the U.S. for at least a century. They are used to crack down on everything from overgrown grass to large-scale drug dealing. In the city of Maplewood, that extends to excessive calls to the police.
Maplewood's nuisance ordinance, last updated in October 2006, is the subject of two lawsuits, which allege the policy and its enforcement are discriminatory. How the city handles nuisance complaints is hailed by some as a way to keep the community safe, and reviled by others who believe it’s a way to regulate residents’ behavior and push out people of color, people with disabilities and survivors of domestic violence.
Both suits, one from the ACLU of Missouri and the other from the Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, point to how Maplewood punishes what it deems “chronic nuisances.” One provision, for example, lists “more than two instances within [180-days] of peace disturbance or domestic violence resulting in calls to the police.” Maplewood can revoke that resident’s occupancy permit if they are found to be a nuisance for up to six months, effectively temporarily evicting them from the city.
“The property maintenance code, the occupancy permits, the nuisance ordinances have prevented properties from deteriorating, and provided a safe peaceful place for residents to live in this community,” Maplewood City Manager Marty Corcoran said.
City officials say there are mechanisms in place to protect victims of crimes, though the nuisance ordinance does not specifically exempt tenants who are the victims of domestic violence.
“This is a code that designates people as problem people. We’re not dealing with problem properties anymore — it’s ‘problem people,’” EHOC staff attorney Kalila Jackson said.
To understand all the arguments for and against Maplewood’s nuisance ordinance, let’s look at how it operates:
Nuisances in Maplewood fall in one of two categories: property and behavior. Property nuisances are commonplace, regulating things like buildings that are not up to code or leaving piles of trash in the front yard. A behavior nuisance deals with things people do, which in Maplewood can be offenses like playing loud music or police reports of peace disturbance at a residence more than twice in 180 days.
Nuisance ordinances can be used a tool of social exclusion, according to Molly Metzger, an assistant professor at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work who specializes in fair housing. She said it’s important to keep in mind what’s at stake: the ability to live in Maplewood.
“Fundamentally, nuisance ordinances and occupancy permits are about who is allowed to live in an area,” said Metzger, who also sits on EHOC’s board of directors. “Occupancy permits weed people out on the front end and force people to register and fit a certain set of criteria around who is allowed to live in a place. Nuisance ordinances are used to push people out once they’ve already entered a community. They are different sides of the same coin.”
Steve Terelmes is a landlord, and has lived in Maplewood for almost two decades. Such ordinances, for him, at least, help maintain city living standards.
“When I deal with my tenants, I see patterns — and those patterns have nothing to do with age, or with race, or with sex, they have to do with the fact that some people are respectful and some people are not,” said Terelmes, who is running for a city council seat in August.
“As a landlord, I do the same thing as the city, if there’s a problem,” Terelmes continued. “I have procedures and protocols and if my tenants do not respond or show any effort to [work with] me, or change their behavior, then they get evicted. That’s just the way you have to do it in order to protect the other population that you have.”
Excerpts of Maplewood nuisance ordinance complaints
For Maplewood to take action against a nuisance complaint, they have to know about it first. City attorney Craig Biesterfeld said most complaints are funneled through police, public works and the city’s website.
“The city doesn’t go out and find these nuisances or investigate them, we’re simply responding to neighbors complaining about peace disturbance that occurs repeatedly at a certain address,” he said.
But the decision to file a complaint isn’t always easy. Amy Pedersen has lived in Maplewood since the early 2000s, and has seen the nuisance ordinance used against three neighbors. From what she could tell, they were all experiencing domestic violence. One was a friend.
“I got a call at, you know, whatever time of night and she told me that he was throwing plates at her head, and she’d locked herself in her back room with her kindergarten-age daughter,” Pedersen recalled. “And I said, ‘You have to call the police, you have a kid in there, if you don’t call the police, I’m going to call the police.’ I didn’t know that it was a bad idea.”
Pedersen said she went to the residence to help her friend’s daughter and saw police arrest the boyfriend. But that call to the police deemed Pedersen’s friend’s home a nuisance, meeting Maplewood’s definition of “more than two instances within a 180-day period [of] peace disturbance or domestic violence resulting in calls to the police.”
A few years later, Pedersen moved to a four-unit apartment with thin walls. One day, she said she heard what sounded like violent fighting in the adjacent apartment.
“I was wary because of what had happened with my friend, but I thought well they probably haven’t had three strikes, and it sounds bad,” Pedersen explained. “And the police came out and I heard them knock on the door, go through the ‘What’s going on, are you okay?’ and then say, ‘Well, you know this is your second strike, if you have another one, we’re going to evict you.’”
All of that has Pedersen wary of calling the police: “I quite honestly have stopped calling (911) if I don’t think there’s somebody bleeding on the floor. I doubt that’s the message the Maplewood police want to be sending, but it’s definitely the lesson I’ve learned.”
But reporting a nuisance is sometimes a necessity for feeling comfortable in your neighborhood. Jason Meyers has owned a home in Maplewood for more than a decade, and about six years ago, he had a problem neighbor.
“It was one of those households where there are so many people coming and going that you didn’t really know who lived there and who didn’t,” Meyers said. “There were a couple of minor things that we wouldn’t really call the police over necessarily, [until] they got pretty flagrant with their drug use. It got to the point where I didn’t really feel comfortable letting my son go outside and play when they were out there smoking weed on the front porch.”
Meyers called the home’s landlord, and was encouraged to call the police if he ever had a problem. He did. A few calls, one late-night fight and five months later, the tenants’ occupancy permit was revoked.
“I personally have never felt any hesitation about calling the police for stuff like that,” Meyers said. “Because if anything were to happen, I would have the opportunity to tell my side of the story.”
Generally, Maplewood officials can’t revoke occupancy permits on the spot. Accused tenants, landlords and homeowners have the chance to make their case at a city administrative hearing.
To get to a hearing, Corcoran said violations have to be documented.
“Say a citizen calls the police and says ‘My neighbor's dog is barking.’ The officer’s gonna pull up to the scene, and if the dog is not barking, there’s not a valid complaint ... it has to be validated — it’s not my word against your word,” said Corcoran who is defendant in the ACLU suit.
Once the possible nuisance is brought to the city’s attention, it sends out a notice of an evidentiary hearing, listing the reason, the time of the hearing and an opportunity to reschedule.
“The purpose of the hearing is to determine factually whether those incidents actually occurred, and whether they fit the definition of a nuisance under the city ordinance,” Biesterfeld said. “They can present their own evidence of whether the nuisance existed, people are sworn in, testimony is given under oath, if there’s any evidence like photographs or things like that, we mark those as exhibits and enter them into the record.”
Either the director of public works, Anthony Traxler, or the assistant director of public works, Tiffany Hyde, conducts the hearing and decide whether the evidence presented adds up to a nuisance.
State Rep. Gina Mitten, a Democrat whose district includes Maplewood, has a problem with the hearings: They operate like a court, but without the strict standards.
“If I am witnessing a crime, or if I’m a victim of domestic assault and I’ve already reached my limit to calls to the police, why is the burden on me to prove my victimization? That burden is usually on the state.” Mitten said. “I respect the fact that the city has those mechanisms in place but, here’s the thing, it’s an administrative hearing. These are not circuit judges, and they get to decide whether or not you’re a victim.”
For Jackson, it’s worrisome to have victims explaining their cases to city administrators without legal training.
“These are very sensitive issues. These are people, women, who may have survived some of the most horrific life experiences, and we’re asking them to revisit that publicly and talk about it to strangers [not] trained in a legal field.” Jackson said.
Traxler, however, said administrative hearings can move things along faster, saying they “sometimes can fill a gap where either a property owner, a landlord, or a municipal court proceeding can’t.”
Who conducts the hearings aside, Jackson is also concerned about the broad language of the ordinance’s provisions.
“Think about it like this: If the ordinance simply says if you have two or more calls for a peace disturbance, it doesn’t say that you have to do anything wrong, it doesn’t say you had to have been convicted of a peace disturbance or an act of domestic violence — it’s simply the act of calling,” she said. “If that is the criteria, you can’t win.”
Biesterfeld said he doesn’t believe Maplewood has ever enforced the two-calls-in-180-days provision against a victim of domestic abuse “who was not in fact a perpetrator.”
But, he said, “nobody has requested us to amend our ordinance to make some carve out for victims of domestic abuse, I can’t imagine that the city would have a problem with something like that.”
A sample notice of nuisance hearing
The parties accused of being a nuisance have three possible outcomes: non-nuisance, suspension and/or eviction.
The first case is simple: A resident can prove a nuisance didn’t happen and they’re free to go. The other two come when the hearing says that, yes, the resident is a nuisance.
“Sometimes the city official believes that a nuisance existed, but the property owner [or renter] has offered to do things that would, from the city’s perspective, eliminate the problems for the neighborhood and the people who complained,” Biesterfeld said. “So they will issue the findings but they’ll basically suspend any revocation of the occupancy permit pending compliance with those agreements by the property owner.
These suspensions are granted for behavior nuisances on a case-by-case basis — basically if the city official overseeing the hearing believes the person who was found to be a nuisance has offered something that could reasonably end it. For example, a city might consider a suspension if a resident who’s found to be a nuisance for creating loud noise with a daily band practice offers to rent a practice space somewhere else.
If the city decides there is a nuisance that can’t be solved with a suspension, under the city code Maplewood can use the third option: “any measures necessary” to prevent it from happening again. That includes taking away an occupancy permit and not re-issuing one for up to six months.
“We’re not trying to punish somebody,” Biesterfeld said. “We’re trying to get compliance with the terms of the city ordinance, either the condition of the property or the stopping of the behavior that is creating the nuisance and the problems for the neighborhood.”
Biesterfeld also noted that, at the end of the day, if the occupant or the property owner is unhappy with the city’s decision, there’s a last resort.
“... Everybody always has the right to appeal any city action to the (St. Louis County Circuit Court),” Biesterfeld said, adding that Maplewood has never lost one of those cases in court.
While Pedersen, the Maplewood resident who’s concerned about domestic violence calls, has known about the nuisance ordinance for years, the recent lawsuits have brought into sharp focus her desire to move.
“I am offended that my municipality considers being a victim of violence to be a nuisance. It’s a shameful way to treat people,” Pedersen said. “Maplewood should be ashamed of itself.”
For Jason Meyers, the procedure makes sense. He’s not opposed to making the ordinance more specific to protect domestic violence survivors, but he can’t get behind striking the whole thing down.
“From the perspective of a homeowner who used this nuisance ordinance to help get rid of a problem neighbor, if this nuisance ordinance didn’t exist, what am I supposed to do?” he said. “I can keep calling the cops. [They] can keep issuing tickets, and I would have to continue to live with the situation — until either someone got arrested and went to jail long enough that it went away, or they moved voluntarily.”
Changes to Maplewood’s nuisance ordinance won’t happen any time soon, at least not through the courts. The EHOC case is heading to discovery, which is a pre-trial exchange of evidence. It's not clear where the ACLU lawsuit stands.
“Litigation is notoriously long and arduous,” EHOC attorney Jackson said. “It will be some time before we have a final decision.”
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