Dozens of Maplewood residents gathered Wednesday to fight a city nuisance ordinance that can lead to eviction after more than two calls to 911.
The meeting at the city’s Salvation Army center attracted about 100 people, including several who only recently learned of the ordinance enacted in 2006. Under the rule, more than two calls to police within 180 days for an incident of “peace disturbance or domestic violence” can trigger a revocation of the homeowner’s or renter’s occupancy permit for up to six months.
Last year, the St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council and ACLU of Missouri both sued the city over the rule, which they say unfairly targets victims of violence and people with mental illness.
The two groups hosted the meeting to encourage residents to contact city officials and voice their opposition to the ordinance, called “perverse and damaging” by Sandra Park, senior staff attorney for the ACLU.
“In so many of these cases ... you really are punishing the victim,” she said. “You are chilling their right to seek assistance.”
In a review of more than 50 cases when the city enforced the rule since 2010, the equal housing council found that more than 20 percent of the evictions were against victims of domestic violence, said Kalila Jackson, a senior staff attorney for the nonprofit. African-Americans and people with mental health problems were disproportionately represented in the enforcement actions, she added.
Maplewood City Manager Martin Corcoran could not be reached for comment Wednesday. He has denied previously that the city took any of the actions based on race, religion, age or gender.
Lifelong Maplewood resident Jim Higgins, 84, said he was concerned about the city’s definition of “nuisance.” Higgins has fallen twice in the last year, breaking his nose and bleeding profusely both times when he called for emergency medical assistance.
Marlon Lee, a member of Maplewood Community Builders, a volunteer group established in support of the lawsuits, called the ordinance “a Jim Crow law with a different spin on it.”
The lawsuit against the city by the equal housing council was dismissed on a legal technicality, Jackson said. The ACLU’s suit is still pending, with ongoing settlement discussions, Park said. Both women said their ultimate goal was a full repeal of the ordinance.
At least 69 municipalities across St. Louis city and county have some type of nuisance ordinance. Some are enforced as fines against landlords, while others, such as Maplewood’s, target the occupancy permit holder. Maplewood’s ordinance is considered one of the strictest in the U.S. because it specifically defines domestic violence as a nuisance call, Park said.
The ACLU’s suit claims that the city banned a disabled woman, Rosetta Watson, from living in Maplewood for six months after she was the victim of domestic violence four times.
Watson first rented a home in the city in June 2010 with her rent subsidized by a Section 8 voucher, according to the lawsuit. She was repeatedly attacked by an ex-boyfriend while living there, the suit says. From September 2011 to February 2012, Maplewood police went to Watson’s home four times for domestic violence calls. Maplewood then enforced the nuisance ordinance against Watson based on the four police calls, the suit said.
After a hearing, Watson’s occupancy permit was revoked May 30, 2012. Under some other nuisance ordinances, residents can move elsewhere in the city. In Maplewood, the rule bars residents from applying for another occupancy permit anywhere in the city for up to six months.