Iowa crime victims need no longer fear eviction for calling 911

Iowa lawmakers have unanimously approved a bill designed to ban local ordinances that have indirectly caused some crime victims to be evicted. Assuming Governor Terry Branstad signs House File 493 into law, Iowans will no longer need to fear that calling 911 could force them out of their housing.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault have been among the key advocates for state action on this issue, along with the Attorney General’s Office.

Veronica Fowler explained the need for this bill in an action alert for the ACLU of Iowa’s website last month (emphasis in original):

If you were concerned about someone harming you or your family, why should you have to think twice about calling police?

But that is the position many Iowans find themselves in because of so-called nuisance ordinances. These ordinances attempt to make landlords accountable for criminal activity on their properties. Instead, nuisance ordinances punish victims of domestic abuse, the poor, those with disabilities, and the elderly—all who have higher need for police assistance. […]

Too many or the wrong type of calls to police and your landlord—or you—could be fined for each call. In some cases, a single call can trigger a property being designated as a “nuisance property.”

Charging $94-Plus for Police Calls

In Cedar Rapids, the ordinance results in a fine of $94 per police officer per hour. Too often, landlords tell their tenants to “take care of the problem” or to stop calling police. Or they threaten eviction or simply evict the tenants outright.

The right to make domestic violence calls is of particular concern. Domestic violence calls are the single largest category received by police, accounting for 15 to 20 percent nationally. In Cedar Rapids, in a recent three-month period, there were 549 domestic violence calls asking for assistance.

Worsens Homelessness Among Crime Victims

Domestic violence is already the leading cause of homelessness for women. We don’t need nuisance ordinances to make the problem even worse.

Nuisance ordinances hurt others as well. For people with disabilities, particularly those with developmental and mental health impairments for whom “disorderly conduct” often characterizes their interactions with law enforcement, nuisance ordinances are punitive and ineffective. Nuisance ordinances also disproportionately hurt those who live in high-crime neighborhoods, including the elderly, the poor, and communities of color. […]

The Des Moines Register’s editorial board covered the backstory on that Cedar Rapids ordinance in December:

Two years ago [in 2013], the city of Cedar Rapids passed a nuisance ordinance intended to penalize the owners of properties that generate a high number of calls to the police.

The problem with the law, as many people argued at the time, was that it wasn’t focused on commercial enterprises, such as taverns that prove to be a hotbed of crime, but on residential properties, including apartments where the tenant is not the property owner. […]

City officials then argued that calls for service were not treated as “founded” nuisance activity in cases where a tenant or property owner was the victim of a crime. But the city acknowledged that owners and tenants aren’t necessarily considered victims simply because they summon the police.

The city also acknowledged that its nuisance property abatement coordinator, in reviewing each case, would consider whether the tenant who reported a crime “reasonably should have known” that criminal activity was likely to occur — another tactic that seemed aimed at the victims of domestic abuse. […]

Now, faced with the prospect of more legislative action in the coming 2016 session, Cedar Rapids is attempting to address some of the concerns raised by the ACLU by modifying its ordinance. The effort shows real promise, and the city is to be commended for moving in this direction. But there are 947 incorporated cities in Iowa, and the issue needs to be addressed at the state level.

Nicknamed the Right to Assistance bill by its supporters, House File 493 seemed on track to become law a year ago. Iowa House Judiciary Committee Chair Chip Baltimore introduced the bill during the 2015 session. His committee approved an amendment to clarify that “the provisions of this chapter shall supersede any local ordinance, rule, or regulation that is inconsistent with or conflicts with the provisions of this chapter.” Smooth sailing led to unanimous approval in the Iowa House in late March 2015.

However, the bill stalled in the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee. The city of Cedar Rapids and the League of Cities were the only groups with lobbyists registered against the bill. Their concerns appear to have struck a chord with State Senator Rob Hogg, who represents part of Cedar Rapids and served on the subcommittee where the bill died last year. The Des Moines Register later quoted Hogg describing the proposal as “a local control issue.”

The Right to Assistance Bill was among the top legislative priorities for the Iowa Coalition against Domestic Violence and the ACLU of Iowa this year. The bill found new life in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which unanimously recommended passage last month.

Hogg managed House File 493 during Senate floor debate on April 6. By voice vote, senators approved a substitute amendment before unanimously passing the bill. William Petroski reported for the Des Moines Register that Hogg “said the original House version was so broad that it raised concerns about pre-empting the rights of cities and counties to deal with nuisance properties.” (You can compare the Senate amendment to the originally proposed language.)

The amended bill went back to the House. Proponents were hopeful, given the previous support in the lower chamber. On the other hand, the League of Cities and the city of Cedar Rapids were still registered against House File 493. Moreover, there’s always a risk that a low-profile bill will get lost in the shuffle as Iowa House and Senate leaders focus on budget bills that need to pass before lawmakers can go home for the year.

During the House evening session on April 27, lawmakers concurred in the Senate amendment before unanimously approving House File 493. The Des Moines Register’s Brianne Pfannenstiel covered the speech by floor manager State Representative Zach Nunn:

“We’re not trying to tell the cities how to do their jobs,” he said. “We’re just saying that of all the things in your toolbox this is something you’re not going to use. You’re not going to put a citizen on a nuisance list based on a legitimate call. … For people who make erroneous calls there are fines, there are additional things already on the books. You don’t need to label somebody as a nuisance for this.”

From one of the statements welcoming that vote:

Finding and maintaining safe, affordable housing is the biggest challenge many victims face when leaving or managing an abusive relationship. Approximately 63% of homeless women have experienced domestic violence in their lives (Source: National Network to End Domestic Violence). The Right to Assistance Act protects the right of all crime victims, but is particularly important to victims of domestic violence because these crimes largely occur at home.

The Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ICADV) applauds Rep. Zach Nunn (R-Polk) for spearheading efforts in the House to make sure this important domestic violence bill was sent to Governor Branstad before the Legislature adjourned.

“A survivor of domestic violence should never have to fear a possible eviction for calling the police for help,” says Laurie Schipper, executive director of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “We truly appreciate the numerous domestic violence bills considered by policymakers this session, and are grateful for Rep. Nunn’s efforts in the final hours to make sure this bill made it over the finish line.”

Too many consensus issues get caught up in partisan politics at the Iowa legislature, so it’s nice to see bipartisan support for a law that could improve vulnerable people’s lives.

LATE UPDATE: The governor signed this bill on May 27.

About the Author(s)


  • Follow up - Right to Assistance

    Somehow, I missed this piece when it went live. I worked on this issue from 2014 to the time the Governor signed it. I am delighted it’s now law. I hope that anyone who supported it, even when it looked DOA, will continue to press to make sure that all policymakers get the issue of domestic violence right. Lots of crime victims truly suffered, for far longer than they had to, because a small group of people felt they owned the state legislature.

    I absolutely commend the legislators and the advocates who never stopped working on this. My friends left everything on the field for this law and I will never forget what I personally learned during this process. The fact is, this bill never should have been controversial. Good Republicans and Democrats knew that from day one. It’s difficult to imagine what led people to make this their line in the sand, but I am glad beyond words that the right side won. I will always be grateful for the literally thousands of hours people put in to make Iowa the best state in the country in this policy area.