(CN) – A St. Louis suburb is accused of using a city nuisance ordinance to exile black and disabled tenants and ensure the community stays predominately white, in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
The Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, also called EHOC, filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the city of Maplewood, claiming it uses its chronic nuisance ordinance to perpetuate "Maplewood's status as a 'white' community in the starkly segregated St. Louis metropolitan area."
According to the complaint brought in St. Louis federal court, the ordinance "designates certain residents to be nuisances simply because they have been the subject of multiple police calls, regardless of whether they did anything wrong or are, instead, the victims of domestic violence or otherwise in legitimate need of municipal services."
After these residents are deemed chronic nuisances, their occupancy permits are revoked, causing them to be exiled, "since without an occupancy permit it is a crime to live in Maplewood,” the complaint states.
According to EHOC, which analyzed Maplewood's records over a five-year period, "Maplewood enforces its nuisance ordinance selectively, and in doing so it disproportionately enforces the ordinance against African-American residents while ignoring similar conduct by other residents."
Many of the city’s nuisance enforcement actions have also been taken against women who are survivors of domestic violence and people with disabilities, the complaint states, which “effectively punish these people vulnerable populations for requiring police protection.”
Maplewood has a tradition of being a majority white community, although it has become more racially diverse in recent decades. In 1970, black residents made up less than 2 percent of the population; by 1990, that number had risen to more that 17 percent.
"In recent years, Maplewood has taken steps to arrest and roll back these demographic changes,” the lawsuit states.
In an effort to "lure more upscale, white residents," Maplewood enacted "one of the country's most onerous nuisance ordinances," EHOC contends.
According to the complaint, the ordinance requires all renters to apply and be approved for an occupancy permit at a cost of $15.
"An applicant must specify every proposed resident of the dwelling and certify his or her understanding that no one else is permitted to reside there,” it states.
That permit can be revoked for a variety of nuisance actions. The ordinance "defines eligible 'nuisances' so broadly as to potentially include virtually any act that city officials do not like,” according to the lawsuit.
The ordinance also considers two instances of domestic violence in a six-month period a nuisance, the EHOC says.
Because the ordinance gives officials enormous latitude in revoking occupancy permits, Maplewood has allegedly used it to "invoke this harsh remedy primarily against African Americans, people with disabilities and women who are facing domestic violence."
EHOC says its investigation found that, in Maplewood, the percentage of nuisance enforcement actions against black residents is three times higher than the city’s black population.
In addition, "almost one-seventh of all enforcement actions . . . involved a female resident being attacked by a male partner, former partner or rebuffed suitor. Rather than protecting these survivors, Maplewood instituted enforcement actions against them,” the lawsuit states.
All of the domestic violence survivors allegedly harmed by the nuisance ordinance were black, according to the complaint.
EHOC also says more than a quarter of nuisance enforcements "involved residents whose 'misconduct' was the manifestation of mental illness or other disabilities.”
“Rather than making any accommodations for these disabilities, or providing any other assistance, Maplewood used these behaviors as a reason to exile the resident in question," the complaint states.
Maplewood allegedly cited a suicidal woman suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder from rape for generating too many calls for police services. The last call the city cited her for was actually made by a suicide hotline volunteer concerned for her safety, EHOC claims.
In another instance, a family afraid to call an ambulance for a mentally ill resident because of the ordinance say they instead called a cab, allegedly telling the city in a voicemail, “We had to call a cab because apparently the ambulance is a crime for us.'"
EHOC seeks a declaratory judgment that the actions of Maplewood violate the Fair Housing Act and the Missouri Human Rights Act, as well as a permanent injunction restraining Maplewood from enforcing the chronic nuisance ordinance.
It also seeks compensatory and punitive damages, and is represented by Sasha Samberg-Champion with Relman, Dane & Colfax in Washington, D.C., and Thomas E. Kennedy III of St. Louis.
The city of Maplewood did not immediately respond Thursday to phone and email requests for comment.
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