Joseph Montagno needed help, and until last year had no idea that the City of Burlington would punish him for asking for it. In 2015 and 2016 his Burlington apartment was vandalized and burglarized, and he received threats from a neighbor. Mr. Montagno and many other tenants in his building made multiple calls for police assistance that year, unaware that merely calling for help could put their housing at risk.
Mr. Montagno and his neighbors had no way of knowing, but the Burlington police were tracking the calls from their building, among others. City officials deemed their calls to be “too frequent” and notified Mr. Montagno’s landlord that unless the landlord took action to stop the calls, the City would revoke his certificate of occupancy, meaning he would no longer be able to rent the apartments.
Predictably, the landlord responded by initiating eviction proceedings against Mr. Montagno and other neighbors that had been classified as “frequent callers.”
Nationwide, the ACLU had faced down many laws like the one that lead to Mr. Montagno’s eviction. In violation of residents’ First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition the government these “nuisance ordinances” punish those who call the police for help, regardless of whether they are the victim of a crime. They are arbitrarily enforced, and have the gravest impact on people of color, survivors of domestic violence, and people suffering from mental illness.
When he was notified that he would be losing his housing due to his calls to the police, Mr. Montagno was shocked. He received no notice that he was being tracked or classified as a “frequent caller” by the City. He had no opportunity to challenge that classification. He wasn’t aware of any rules or laws about when it was or was not permissible for a Burlington resident to call the police – because they do not exist.
Mr. Montagno was forced to surrender his apartment, leaving him homeless and putting his Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher at risk.
In response, the ACLU of Vermont filed a lawsuit against the City of Burlington for its unconstitutional policy of punishing residents for calling the police for help.
The problems associated with such policies were highlighted in a 2016 letter signed by Senator Leahy, Senator Sanders, and 27 other Senators sent to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) a few months after Mr. Montagno’s eviction. The letter called for written guidance for cities and landlords, and in response HUD adopted guidance calling for the abolition of such ordinances to ensure compliance with the Fair Housing Act and the protection of crime victims.
In a settlement reached between Mr. Montagno, the ACLU of Vermont and the City of Burlington last month, the City agreed to propose changes to its laws so that tenants receive timely notice if the City is taking action against their landlord and to provide protections for victims of crime and people calling for police assistance. From now on, Burlingtonians like Mr. Montagno (who has since secured permanent housing) will receive the help they need – not an eviction notice.
Although all communities need to remain vigilant to ensure municipalities do not use similar tactics, for now at least, Burlington residents do not have to fear reprisal for calling the police for help.