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The Worst of Cleveland: Criminal Activity Nuisance Ordinances


In February of 2018, the city of Bedford declared a property a nuisance and fined the owner $250. The issue? The tenant had sought help months earlier over concerns that her boyfriend was going to kill himself. Later, she called police again, believing him to be suicidal. After the nuisance declaration from Bedford, the landlord evicted the tenant.

In October of 2015, a Lakewood woman called 911 after someone overdosed and died in her home. Some months later, another person overdosed and she called again. EMS were able to save that victim, but in the aftermath Lakewood sent a letter to her landlord: They'd declared the property a nuisance. The landlord began eviction proceedings that very same day.

Welcome to the infuriating land of Criminal Activity Nuisance Ordinances, where calling 911 can mean losing your home.

Nuisance laws came in vogue in the early 2000s, with cities enacting them to protect some vague sense of decency and community standards. They are, by definition and practice, pretty broad, which means that for every intention of, say, shutting down a drug house, they also became a magnet for barely veiled racism, as well as a tool cities can use to force out renters and those with subsidized housing vouchers. Studies have routinely found they unfairly harm minorities and those with mental health issues, among others.

Bedford is one of 21 Northeast Ohio cities with Criminal Activity Nuisance Ordinances on the books, and one of just four that includes domestic violence in the statutes. It is also now facing a federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU and the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland that calls for its CANO to be taken completely off the books because a decade of public records show how it routinely has served as a discriminatory tool. How blatant is the racism here?

When its CANO was passed in 2005, the mayor explained: "One of the things that we take pride in is middle class values. We believe in neighborhoods not hoods. That is one of the reasons we passed that nuisance law tonight. I have made mention of the students walking down the streets and those are predominantly African American kids who bring in that mentality from the inner city."

So, 100-percent blatant.

"People should be able to pick up the phone and call police for help: Laws should not be used to penalize, deter, and harass ordinary residents for exercising rights under the United States and Ohio constitutions to speak about their concerns, ask for police assistance, and petition the government for redress of grievances," Legal Aid attorney Jennifer Sheehe said when the lawsuit was filed.

We wholeheartedly agree. Every one of the remaining 21 municipalities in Northeast Ohio should immediately begin work to strike these ordinances straight to the dumpster.

— Vince Grzegorek

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