Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, based on a book by the same name written by Celeste Ng, does a wonderful job looking at systematic issues our society faces. One scene finds the two main characters (one black and one white) discussing choices. At one point Kerry Washington’s character tells Reese Witherspoon’s character, “You didn’t make good choices, you had good choices.” When I watched this show, this line stood out to me and really made me think about the choices we don’t have in our society.
At Empower Missouri, we recognize that safe and affordable housing is a human right. But having a safe place to live is a security that many of us take for granted, and something that many of our neighbors don’t have. Have you ever lived in a home that was unsafe? Close your eyes and envision what that feels like. What does it look like? Is it tense? Does it feel overcrowded? When you get out of your car and walk through the door, are you filled with a sense of dread not knowing what will await you on the other side of the door?
Now imagine you and your partner get into an altercation that leads to physical violence. Who do you call for help? Will the local police station assist you? Last time you called for assistance, they told you that if 911 was called again both of you would get arrested. If that happens, who will take care of your children?
This scenario isn’t made up, it happens daily, to all types of people at every level of the socio-economic spectrum. But, it’s felt most acutely by individuals who are already struggling to meet their basic needs. If you have financial resources, that’s one less obstacle to escape a violent situation. If you don’t, staying in a volatile home is often the only option.
When a person in this situation needs help, their choices are limited. Reaching out to 911 may lead to an arrest, an escalation of the situation, or a threat to their housing caused by nuisance violations. In legal terms, “a private nuisance occurs whenever someone prevents or disturbs your use or enjoyment of your property.” This “nuisance” can be anything from a neighbor’s dog barking incessantly or multiple calls to 911 by your neighbor in which police are dispatched. Victims of violence can become a “nuisance” to those who have the resources to change their situation. This is unacceptable and a stance that Empower Missouri can not stand behind.
Nuisance ordinances and crime-free ordinances are an effort to create peaceful neighborhoods. While this might seem great in theory, in practice they discriminate against those who need assistance from the police, medical or other emergency service. Nuisance ordinances generally require housing providers to address the nuisance or face fines, loss of their rental permits, and condemnation of their properties. In the case of repeated calls to emergency services, the simplest way for a landlord to eliminate the nuisance is often to evict the entire household. This leads to our neighbors who have been the victim of violence getting evicted, with no place to turn due to lack of choice and resources.
The United States signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 which recognized “adequate housing as a component of the human right to an adequate standard of living.” Safe and affordable housing is a human right, regardless of one’s status as a “nuisance.” Empower Missouri implores those both with and without power to stand together and demand change locally and statewide. We know better. Now, we must do better.