By Gregory B. Hladky
10:55 AM EDT, October 16, 2013
Problem: Cities want to fight blight and target drug-crime "hot spots." Solution: penalize landlords who allow that crap to go on in their buildings. Potential unintended result: eviction of domestic abuse victims.
That's the scary scenario housing activists, civil rights lawyers and some lawmakers fear will happen if a New Britain ordinance involving fines for repeated 911 calls is allowed to spread across Connecticut.
Similar local laws in other states have already triggered evictions of tenants who made one too many 911 emergency calls. There have been multiple reports of women who were getting beaten by abusive spouses being too afraid to call for help because they feared being evicted.
"There are lives that could be lost as a result of this bad public policy," warns state Rep. Larry Butler, D-Waterbury. He made one abortive attempt to get a state law passed this year to ban these 911-call "nuisance" ordinances, and says he isn't giving up.
"That one call you don't make may mean someone's life," he says.
Last month, a federal judge in Pennsylvania gave the go-ahead to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit challenging one of those local laws allowing evictions for too many 911 calls by a tenant.
Here in Connecticut, landlords have their own lawsuit ready to file against the city of New Britain if that municipality's 911-related program ever starts being enforced. They claim the city's plan to fine landlords if their tenants make too many 911 emergency calls is unconstitutional, violates state and federal laws, and that is nothing more than a "money grab" by local officials.
New Britain city officials insist their ordinance would never result in a charge to a person making a 911 call. They point out that just two percent of New Britain properties are involved in 30 percent of the calls to emergency services.
The landlords argue that any fines will have to be passed on to tenants — a threat that frightens housing advocates for the poor, who worry higher rents would have the same impact as an eviction notice for low-income folks.
New Britain Mayor Timothy E. O'Brien last December hired a public relations outfit for $100,000 to counter the anti-911 ordinance campaign mounted by the landlords and other critics.
O'Brien is a Democrat and the whole thing has turned seriously political. One of the people calling the ordinance a "money grab" is the city's former Republican mayor, Timothy Stewart, who also happens to be a landlord.
Bob DeCosmo, president of the Connecticut Property Owners Alliance, says the controversy generated around the 911-fine issue has put the whole thing on hold. "They haven't moved forward on enforcing it," he says.
DeCosmo believes the November election for mayor is likely to dictate what happens with New Britain's 911-fine ordinance. "If O'Brien is reelected, then it will go forward," DeCosmo says.
And if it does, he says the first landlord fine will trigger the lawsuit against the city.
City officials may be concerned about the rising expense of dealing with nuisance calls that keep coming in to police and fire departments. But it's the issue of safety and the right to police protection and emergency medical care that trouble advocates for civil rights.
"The concern is that someone who is in need of services from the police is frightened from calling [because she or he fears being evicted by a landlord eager to avoid fines]," says Sandy Staub. "That's what happens under these laws."
Staub is legal director for the Connecticut ACLU. She says the biggest worry involves victims of domestic abuse who sometimes are forced to make frequent calls for help from violent spouses or boyfriends.
The New York Times reported on one case involving a violent attack in the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown, Pa. A woman named Lakisha Briggs, who had repeatedly called 911 about her often violent boyfriend, let him in once again in 2012 and didn't call police when he assaulted her with an ashtray and stabbed her in the neck.
Briggs had been warned by police that another call to 911 could result in her eviction. Her case was the trigger for the ACLU's federal lawsuit in Pennsylvania.
So far, Staub says, there have been no reports to her office of any incidents involving people being evicted as a result of the New Britain ordinance.
Butler says he plans to re-introduce his bill to ban such fines for multiple 911 calls when the General Assembly gets back to work next year.
The 2013 version seemed to be sailing along right up until the last few days of the legislative session in May. Two different committees had put their stamps of approval on the bill and everything looked rosy at that point, recalls Butler.
"Then the insurance lobbyists got into the picture," he says.
The tangled problem involved language in the bill that fire departments thought might prevent them from charging municipalities for the emergency calls they answered. But when that got fixed, the insurance companies got all flummoxed over things.
Susan Giacalone, legal counsel for the Insurance Association of Connecticut, says the revised bill seemed to give cities and towns the right to charge property owners for stuff like fires that they don't charge for now.
If that were to happen, the insurance gurus warned, and the fire was covered by a landlord's policy, that could end up costing the insurance companies more money. A corporate no-no if there ever was one.
Butler looks back on the situation with a sense of frustrated resignation. "To try and take on the insurance industry in the last couple of days of the session, it just wasn't going to happen."
The irony in all this is that Giacalone insists the insurance industry has no issue at all with the original intent of the bill to ban municipal fines or evictions for multiple 911 calls. "We have no dog in that fight," she says.
So Butler, who is co-chair of the General Assembly's Housing Committee, says he will make another attempt in 2014 to rewrite the bill so it doesn't piss off the insurance types or the firemen or any other power lobby.
He thinks cities and towns across Connecticut may be watching and waiting to see what happens with that New Britain ordinance. It's no secret all those municipalities could use a little extra money in these hard times.
"What I don't want is for this to become a trend," Butler says.
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