Nuisance Laws, Including Lakewood’s, Punish the Victim

The Lakewood that I believe in wants our city to be a tolerant city. I believe that our community wants to be a place where people can feel welcomed, and find support, especially those who most need it.

Offering support and understanding to victims of domestic violence, under the circumstances, seems like exactly the kind of thing Lakewood stands for. Unfortunately, our city’s laws send a very different message.

Both rights activists and media have given increasing scrutiny, in recent years, to so-called nuisance abatement laws. These laws impose fines on properties, after multiple reports of “nuisance” ordinance violations on, or even near the property. In practice, landlords frequently respond by evicting tenants from these properties—even when the tenant’s only involvement in a crime is as the victim. In some cases, victims of abuse become afraid to call for help, lest the next call bring nuisance status and eviction.

Lakewood has a nuisance abatement ordinance, and unfortunately, it appears to take precisely this approach. Whatever its drafter’s intentions, our kind and caring community has a law that burdens those in danger more than it helps them.

Our city’s nuisance abatement ordinance compiles a lengthy list of grounds for declaring properties a nuisance, and effectively leaves property owners three options: pay fines, attempt a daunting appeals process, or simply get rid of the “nuisance.” This seems like a plain incentive to choose option three, even if it means turning a victim of domestic violence onto the street.

The American Civil Liberties Union has concluded that it is. They have identified 13 cities in Cuyahoga County in which domestic violence can lead to a nuisance designation, and unfortunately, Lakewood makes their list.

Nora Caplan-Bricker has written at Slate that “nuisance ordinances seem to be popping up faster than the ACLU can swat them down.” Fortunately, in Northeast Ohio, some impressive local activists have joined the cause. Cleveland State University students Marissa Pappas, Vanessa Hemminger and Calla Bonanno got interested in this issue last year, and their research and testimony convinced Euclid’s government to change its law. Its neighbor, South Euclid, is reportedly considering a similar reform.

Let’s not wait for someone to lead our city to fairer policies, though. Lakewood should undertake our own review of the city’s nuisance abatement ordinance, and while deliberative process is important, let’s make it a brief one. We shouldn’t need a long study to revise a law which likely violates the federal Fair Housing Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and the US Constitution—in the ACLU’s judgment—and which clearly violates our community values of empathy and supportiveness.

It’s time for an updated ordinance which upholds our values, instead.