Blog Emerging Gender Topics in Public Administration

How a gender-neutral housing policy leads to gender disparities

By: Megan E. Hatch

Police responded to a complaint of boy/girl trouble…Ms. [Redacted] willingly let Mr. [Redacted] into the apartment…It is clear that Ms. [Redacted] is involved in a pattern of behavior that is disruptive to her neighbors and places an undue burden on the resources of the [City] Police Department. As such, the property is being declared a nuisance.

Like many aspects of American life, rental housing is gendered. As I argue in my chapter When gender-neutral rental housing policy becomes gender-inequitable in the new Handbook on gender and public administration, edited by Patricia M. Shields and Nicole M. Elias, housing policy has a disparate impact on women, despite surface-level gender-neutrality. Here, I focus on Criminal Activity Nuisance Ordinances (CANOs) and what administrators can do to reduce the harm these policies do to women.

CANOs are local laws that essentially say if the police are called too many times to an address in a certain amount of time (for example, three times in a year), the property can be considered a nuisance. Further police visits at that property can lead to fines. Not all police visits are considered a nuisance. Some CANOs are very limited, listing specific offenses, while others are very broad. Rental properties are more likely to be deemed a nuisance than owner-occupied properties, and the common landlord response is to evict the tenant. The estimated 2,000 CANOs across the U.S. are on the surface gender-neutral because it is a property, not a person, that is considered a nuisance. Yet, my co-authors and I find people with disabilities, people of color, and families with children are more likely to receive nuisance notifications, while another study concludes these laws increase gender and racial inequities. 

Perhaps the area where the disproportionate impact of CANOs is most apparent is in cases of domestic violence. Studies estimate that somewhere between 20 and 58 percent of nuisance notifications are for domestic violence. The quote at the beginning of this blog post is just one such example. A potential consequence of such a notification is that the survivor of the assault, statistically most likely a woman, is victimized again, as she is forced to move because of the nuisance notification, even if the person who assaulted her does not live at the property and/or was arrested. In essence, CANOs can deny those experiencing domestic violence the right to call for police assistance. I agree with other scholars that this is an example of sex discrimination.

What is perhaps most concerning in light of this discrimination is the high degree of discretion and low levels of accountability associated with CANOs. My co-author and I find that elected officials rarely examine the reasons for nuisance notifications or how often they are issued, even though administrators have a lot of discretion to decide when a property is considered a nuisance. 

The most straight-forward way for cities to address the discriminatory effects of CANOs is to change their laws, either by eliminating CANOs completely or by including a provision that CANOs do not apply in cases of domestic violence. These changes may come through court cases, or by cities voluntarily changing their laws, often after advocacy by policy entrepreneurs. More bureaucratic and police accountability is needed. Policymakers need to dispense with the rationalized myth of bureaucratic neutrality, and instead recognize the inherent discretion in housing policy implementation by designing housing policies such as CANOs to hold administrators responsible for ensuring gender equity. 

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About the author:

Megan E. Hatch is an associate professor in the School of Urban Affairs, Cleveland State University. Her research focuses on the variation in policies within the US federalist system and the effects those disparities have on social equity, individuals, and institutions. Within this theme, she examines three policy areas: rental housing, state preemption, and the CDBG program.