New California Law Bans ‘Crime-Free’ Housing that Rand Analyst Calls Discriminatory and Increases Crime

By Citlalli Florez

LOS ANGELES, CA – Local “nuisance property” laws and “crime-free housing” programs require landlords to evict tenants for vaguely defined “criminal-activities,” and has empowered many landlords to act as a “police force,” said Max Griswold, a policy researcher at the Rand Corp., in a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed.

California has recently become the first state in the nation to ban “crime-free housing programs,” which, added Griswold, tend to target low-income and minority renters, noting they lead to eviction and the violation of civil rights and don’t reduce crime.

“Crime-free” housing policies have been implemented for around 30 years. For example, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 augmented the number of evictions in federally subsidized housing. About 2,000 American cities had crime-free housing programs by 2019…37 of the largest U.S. cities also had nuisance property ordinance, noted Griswold.

A recent analysis by Griswold found California’s crime-free housing policies had no effect on crime. Other researchers found that driving people into desperation and homelessness may increase property crime.

Wrote Griswold, “[C]rime-free housing policies backfire partly because they treat 911 calls as an indicator of criminal activity. This creates a perverse incentive: For fear of being evicted, tenants don’t call authorities when they need them.

“This particularly harms victims of domestic violence, who may hesitate to seek help from police lest they lose their housing. These policies can also dissuade tenants from seeking medical aid during drug overdoses or mental health crises.”

Griswold added, “Evictions also hamper crime prevention by disrupting community social networks, making it harder for residents to monitor what’s going on in their neighborhoods — a critical element of crime prevention.”

Griswold’s study found city blocks with apartments certified as crime-free saw 21 percent more evictions than those without. Other researchers, he said, found nuisance property ordinances increase eviction filing rates by 16 percent, and evictions from public housing surged by 40 percent when the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development created the “One Strike and You’re Out” policy in 1996.

People who are evicted struggle to find housing again and those who are removed from public housing are prohibited from receiving housing assistance, observes Griswold, noting this can lead to more homelessness and desperation.

He opined, evictions cause disproportionate housing insecurity for children, higher unemployment, more use of emergency room resources and an increase in drug and alcohol deaths.

The use of eviction instead of criminal justice procedures has also been argued, said Griswold, to deny due process because such policies do not require an arrest or conviction or an indication of crime near the property.

“People have been evicted under crime-free housing policies over kids playing basketball or jumping on a trampoline and because of complaints about barbecues. Tenants can even face severe consequences for the behavior of their guests. One federal court case concerns an Illinois city trying to evict a family because of a burglary committed by a friend of their teenage son who had slept on their couch,” wrote Griswold.

The author said the Department of Justice has taken action against cities for violating the Fair Housing Act and other federal laws.

In 2022, he said, a city in San Bernardino County, Hesperia, signed a consent decree with the federal government about selective application of the crime-free housing program. Low-income and multifamily properties were most affected by the program. Other lawsuits have been filed in the states of Washington, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota.

“What is the point of these harmful policies if they aren’t reducing crime? Public officials have suggested their real goal is segregation,” asked Griswold in his LA Times opinion.

He noted one Hesperia city official “acknowledged that the purpose of the city’s crime-free housing program was to remove what he described as ‘those kind of people’ and ‘improve our demographic.’

“The mayor of Bedford, Ohio, said the city’s nuisance property ordinance was about taking ‘pride in middle-class values’ and curtailing ‘urban immigration.’ The analysis I led found that cities with crime-free housing programs had larger Black populations and that the affected apartments were on lower-income blocks with larger Black and Latino populations,” said Griswold.

Rand’s policy researcher concluded, “Following California’s lead, other states should limit evictions under these policies without an arrest or conviction or based on the behavior of nonresidents. Cities should also be required to report the number of evictions resulting from crime-free housing policies and nuisance ordinances.

“Similar federal policies also need reconsideration, including the one-strike policy for public housing and the rules that prevent evicted tenants from obtaining future housing assistance.

“These policies and the evictions they cause are at best an ineffective means of preventing crime. At worst, they’re a harmful form of discrimination that leads to more crime and homelessness. Ending them could make all our communities safer.”

About The Author

Citlalli Florez is a 4th year undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently majoring in Legal Studies, Chicana/o Studies, and Art Practice. She intends to attend law school in the future with the purpose of gaining skills to further serve her community.

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