Every day, tenants across California face difficult decisions that put the need for housing security at odds with the need to live a secure and happy life. One of the most dangerous predicaments tenants face is the threat of eviction for seeking emergency service.
This is what Suzannah Doe encountered in 2016 after her boyfriend hit her in the face, loaded a gun, and threatened to shoot her. Suzannah called 911, and the police report clearly noted she feared for her life and thought her boyfriend was going to kill her. Astonishingly, the police notified Suzannah’s landlord that criminal activity occurred at her residence, and she was evicted from her home.
Suzannah’s story is all too familiar for Californians who live in areas with crime free ordinances that allow, and sometimes even encourage, landlords to evict tenants after receiving a notice of criminal activity. These local mandates—also known as nuisance ordinances—are intended to ensure quiet and safe communities. However, they do not take into account who was the perpetrator of the crime and who was the victim. In reality, they often punish everyday Californians simply for reaching out for help in an emergency.
In the context of California’s housing and homelessness crisis, evicting some of our most vulnerable residents is only contributing to a cycle of poverty and homelessness. Compounding this issue is the fact that nuisance evictions disproportionately impact women and low-income communities of color. Reports show that violence against women is a leading cause of homelessness. In fact, over the course of just one day in 2012, survivors of domestic violence filed 10,471 unmet requests for services, and 65 percent of these unmet requests were for housing assistance. Our tax dollars go towards funding police and emergency assistance, but those funds should not contribute towards evictions and displacement.
California law attempts to lessen the negative impacts of nuisance ordinances, but the law is narrow in scope leaving many Californians without protections. Victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, human trafficking, or elder or dependent adult abuse are shielded from eviction but only under limited circumstances. Tenants must have a recent temporary restraining order, emergency protective order, or written report by a peace officer to qualify for legal protections. These strict documentation requirements almost render existing law ineffective as it is widely known that instances of domestic violence and abuse go largely unreported.
And what about those who need to call for help but do not fit into any of these categories? Take the story of Joshua, a Marine Corps veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2015, he called 911 a number of times while experiencing post-traumatic stress episodes ranging from flashbacks that caused him to fear for his life to devastating side effects from the medication prescribed to him. The Hawthorne Police Department deemed Joshua’s calls “excessive non-emergency calls” and found him to be violating the city’s nuisance ordinance. Despite having a great relationship with his landlord and property manager, he was evicted after the landlord was pressured to do so by the local police department.
We are taught to call 911 if we ever fear for our lives or need help. “Better safe than sorry” is the mantra we hear from an early age. We are not taught that we must have strong evidence to legitimize calling for help or we may be without a home. It is shameful and appalling that our cities and counties continue to punish those most vulnerable under the guise of “community safety.” True community safety only comes when we guarantee access to emergency services for everyone without conditions.
A bill authored by Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco) is currently trying to address this injustice. AB 2413, the Right to a Safe Home Act, will expand protections to victims of all crimes—not just those in five limited categories—as well as individuals in emergency situations. Most crucially, it eliminates the burden to excessively document and prove victim status.
This bill is designed to stop harmful mandates that violate residents’ basic right to call for help. AB 2413 passed out of the State Assembly with strong bipartisan support and is similarly set to pass out of the State Senate early August. It will then be moving on to the governor’s desk for him to sign.
The Right to a Safe Home Act is written to right the wrongs that are befalling countless Californians who reach out for help. Call Gov. Jerry Brown at (916) 445-2841 and ask him to support AB 2413. Spread the word on social media by using the hashtag #AB2413. Send a clear and unwavering message to legislators and the governor that everyone should be able to call for help without fearing eviction. Californians deserve safe and secure homes.
Linh Tran-Phuong is a fellow at the Women’s Policy Institute. If you would like more information or if you have a story to share, please contact Women’s Policy Institute fellow Linh Tran-Phuong at womensfoundca.org/policy/wpi.