By Sabrina Adler
COVID-19 has urgently demonstrated that everyone needs to live in safe and healthy communities. The people most affected by COVID-19 are communities of color, people with low income, immigrants, and other underserved groups. These groups are most vulnerable in part because of existing laws and policies that affect the fundamental drivers of health inequities. Communities and local governments that take steps to ensure health, safety, housing, food, and economic stability for all of their residents will be helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and laying the groundwork for health equity and prosperity for future generations.
To help communities and local governments strengthen their response to COVID-19 and advance health equity, we’re publishing a blog series about policies that they can enact right away. This post is the fifth in the series.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, state and local leaders around the country have issued stay-at-home orders. Even as such orders are gradually relaxed, people are likely to be at home more than usual due to continued social distancing measures. Increased time at home may increase the risk for domestic violence and negative mental health outcomes for some individuals, especially when they also face economic insecurity or other stressful life events.
Nuisance ordinances are local laws that are intended to curb recurring undesirable occurrences that pose a risk to public health or safety, such as excessive noise, hazardous waste, or criminal activity. These laws are intended to keep communities safe and livable — but sometimes they have the opposite effect. Nuisance laws are often triggered through repeated 911 calls, including calls to report violence, abuse, or mental health distress. When too many calls for assistance come from one property, nuisance laws designate the callers as a “nuisance.” Penalties for such violations range in severity and sometimes cause unjust outcomes — for example, when fines compound existing economic hardship or nuisance designation leads to eviction for underserved residents.
More than 2,000 localities around the country have chronic nuisance laws in place. These laws can disproportionately impact people with fewer resources, such as people of color, people with disabilities, or those experiencing domestic violence. One driver of this disparity is inequitable enforcement of nuisance laws for different demographics and neighborhoods.
For example, in Missouri, Rosetta Watson called police several times, seeking protection from her abusive boyfriend, and, as a result, was deemed a nuisance. This designation led to eviction from her home under a local law that bars people from living anywhere in the city for 6 months after they are determined to be a “nuisance.” In Watson’s hometown, this particular type of nuisance was defined as more than 2 calls to police about domestic violence within a 180-day period. Penalizing residents for such calls at any time, let alone at a time when citizens are legally ordered to stay home because of COVID-19, does the opposite of promoting community safety and public health.
Some states have preempted, or prohibited, localities from enacting certain types of nuisance laws, such as those that penalize residents for repeated 911 calls. In localities where nuisance laws remain on the books, local officials should re-examine their existing laws and the enforcement practices for those laws. Officials can repeal or refine the laws to ensure that residents aren’t unjustly penalized for seeking the help of law enforcement.
To learn more about promoting safe homes for everyone, check out the American Civil Liberties Union’s guide Safe Homes, Safe Communities.
 We recognize that terminology is evolving toward physical distancing instead of social distancing as we collectively realize that although we are physically apart, we are all facing this pandemic together. Additionally, we recognize the effects of social isolation on stress, mental health, and well-being. We’ve used the term social distancing in this post so as not to confuse people who are following the news and may not be familiar with the term physical distancing.
Please stay tuned for the next installment in this series, which will discuss adopting a Health in All Policies (or whole-of-government) approach to COVID-19 response.