Posted July 24, 20191:12 pm
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Cleveland Councilman Kevin Conwell wakes every morning around 6 and descends to his family basement that doubles as his music room. There, he spends roughly an hour practicing drum riffs and improvising rhythms for later play with his jazz band Kevin Conwell & The Footprints.
Conwell said he keeps the volume to a minimum. He often forgoes drum sticks for brushes and goes deliberately easy on the cymbals. He recognizes the irony of his sunrise drum routine. Conwell is one of Cleveland’s more proactive legislators on identifying and working to abate nuisance properties. He helped author several of the nuisance laws currently used by the city of Cleveland. It would be the height of hypocrisy for the Conwell house to be a neighborhood nuisance.
“None of my neighbors have ever complained,” said Conwell with a laugh after I asked if his neighbors considered him a noise nuisance.
The same can’t be said of a very different kind of noise currently being generated by a nuisance law in Bedford. These days, the Southeast Cleveland suburb is attracting attention from Conwell, legal watchers, and others due to a federal court injunction issued Monday that temporarily prohibits Bedford from enforcing its Criminal Activity Nuisance ordinance.
Earlier this year, the city was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland over the nuisance ordinance claiming that it targets black residents, the majority of whom are renters and newcomers to the city.
Under Bedford’s nuisance ordinance last updated in 2017, the ACLU argued a resident could be cited as a nuisance for merely calling 911 to register a noise complaint more than once.
That’s exactly what happened to Beverley Somai, an immigrant from Guyana who faced eviction last December from her Bedford apartment. She called police for help dealing with her downstairs neighbor, who was frequently noisy and intimidating to her and her disabled son, she said.
After several calls, the city cited her rental unit as a nuisance due to her repeated 911 calls. At that point, the owner of the property sought to evict her until the civil rights groups took on her case, and he relented.
Joseph Mead, a Cleveland State University law professor, has rigorously studied the way that cities nationwide use nuisance laws to target victims in search of help. He said such laws routinely fail to distinguish between offender and complainants.
“Innocent people are often victimized by these laws. Eviction is a common outcome for people living in properties designated as a nuisance,” said Mead, one of the attorneys who intervened in Somai’s case.
His concerns go deeper. Enforcement of nuisance laws routinely force domestic violence victims to make a dangerous choice between remaining in volatile situations or becoming homeless. This conclusion is borne out by a local report recently released by the Fair Housing Center for Rights & Research.
The Center found that 13.3 percent of survivors of domestic violence in Cuyahoga County said they were evicted after experiencing domestic violence and 20 percent said they struggled to find new housing after a domestic violence incident.
“Multiple systems work to discourage survivors of domestic violence from contacting emergency services, including criminal activity nuisance ordinances, law enforcement and child services. Twenty percent of surveyed survivors reported that they had refrained from calling 911 concerning domestic violence for fear of eviction or that child services would remove their children from the home,” the report found.
These unintended consequences are a dangerous undercurrent of the nuisance laws that now have Conwell’s attention. He said some of the nuisance ordinances he helped draft for Cleveland are modeled after laws first drafted in Maple Heights. The laws were designed to target bad landlords and help deter criminal activity. Conwell said those laws remain necessary for neighborhood stability and safety.
“On the other hand, we can’t allow nuisance laws to become tools of discrimination or to put anyone in harm’s way. That’s why my residents see me walking in the ward every day,” said Conwell.
“I can identify a problem house or a nuisance a lot easier if I’m on foot. That’s also why community policing remains important,” said the councilman who “lightly” bangs his basement drum before going in search of neighborhood nuisances.
Unfortunately, in some cases the nuisance laws are turning out to be just as disruptive as criminals.