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Granite City Changes 'Crime-Free' Rules for Renters Amid Complaints And State Law Update

Jessica Barron and Kenny Wylie, of Granite City, are plaintiffs in on of two civil rights lawsuits against Granite City over the enforcement of the city's crime-free housing ordinance. Jan. 2020
Institute For Justice

Amid two ongoing civil rights lawsuits and a change in the state law, Granite City officials have relaxed their rules for landlords and tenants under the city’s crime-free housing ordinance, which used to be among the strictest in the metro-east.

Until recently, Granite City officials would require landlords to evict tenants if anyone staying in their home, including a guest, was charged with a felony, even if the offense happened somewhere other than their apartment or rental home.

An amendment to the Illinois Human Rights Act this year says landlords who deny someone housing based on an arrest without a conviction are violating a tenant’s civil rights, unless the crime happens at the rental property.

Granite City leaders interpreted the new amendment to mean they had to stop telling landlords to evict tenants over arrests in crimes that didn’t happen on the premises. They updated their rules at a recent City Council meeting so that renters can be evicted only if there is a conviction for off-site crimes.

Between 2014 and 2018, 111 people, or a quarter of those who Granite City said broke the crime-free housing rules over five years, were accused of offenses that didn’t occur at the home of the renters facing eviction, according to an analysis of records by the Belleville News-Democrat. Only 59 of them, or about half, were eventually convicted.

Granite City officials were advised by their attorneys not to comment on the crime-free housing ordinance because of ongoing litigation filed by two families whose landlords were told to evict them in 2019, according to Mayor Ed Hagnauer’s office. Elected officials declined to be interviewed, and police department staff didn’t respond to a request for comment. But the city said in court filings that the ordinance is protecting the community.

A federal judge stopped the city from evicting the families while the case is tried.

Granite City’s attorney Erin Phillips recently filed motions to dismiss their complaints now that the City Council has changed the rules for renters. Because neither of the crimes that triggered the plaintiffs’ evictions happened at their homes, they can’t be kicked out under the new rules, she said.

But Sam Gedge, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said he plans to continue fighting the rules in federal court because they still allow renters to be evicted when they haven’t committed a crime themselves, which he argues is a violation of their constitutional rights.

Under the revised ordinance, a whole household will face eviction if anyone — from a child to a roommate or a guest — is accused of criminal activity on the premises. A conviction isn’t required.

Other towns, including Belleville, O’Fallon and Collinsville, enforce evictions for the same reason.

Alton passed a strict ordinance in 2019 that was similar to Granite City’s old crime-free rules. The officials in charge of Alton’s rules couldn’t be reached for comment about the possibility of their ordinance changing because of the amendment to the Illinois Human Rights Act.

Why the families sued Granite City

Jessica Barron, Kenny Wylie and their three children filed a lawsuit against Granite City in August. At the time, they faced eviction because their teenage son’s friend, who they let stay with them a few nights a week one winter, was charged with burglary in a midnight break-in at the neighborhood bar.

Their landlord, Bill Campbell, is also a plaintiff in their complaint. Property owners like Campbell could have the business licenses they need to rent out homes revoked if they don’t evict tenants after the police officers who enforce the ordinance tell them to.

Andy Simpson, Debi Brumit and her two grandchildren filed another lawsuit two months later, in October. They faced eviction because Brumit’s adult daughter was charged with stealing a van in Granite City, and because Brumit testified during a municipal appeal hearing that she would continue to let her daughter visit their home.

Both families are represented by the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit that takes on cases dealing with civil liberties.

They are alleging in the lawsuits that it’s illegal to force their landlords to kick them out for crimes committed outside of their homes by someone else and without their knowledge, something homeowners don’t have to worry about.

If the judge rules in the plaintiff’s favor, it could change the rules for future renters.

At least 19 letters have been mailed to landlords and tenants about violations of the crime-free housing ordinance requiring an eviction since the first lawsuit was filed, according to documents the plaintiffs submitted in court.

“No one should be punished for a crime someone else committed,” Gedge, the lead attorney on their case, said in a November interview.

Criticisms, defense of crime-free housing

Granite City laid out its defense of the rules in its responses to the lawsuits in court. It points to a 2002 Supreme Court opinion as proof that they don’t violate renters’ rights.

The justices decided that a federal law from the “War on Drugs” era gives public housing authorities the discretion to evict federally assisted, low-income tenants if anyone in the household or guests who visited were arrested with drugs, whether or not those tenants knew about the drugs. They assumed there wouldn’t be a “one-strike” eviction every time.

“The statute … entrusts that decision to the local public housing authorities, who are in the best position to take account of, among other things, the degree to which the housing project suffers from ‘rampant drug-related or violent crime,’ ‘the seriousness of the offending action,’ and ‘the extent to which the leaseholder has … taken all reasonable steps to prevent or mitigate the offending action,’” the Supreme Court opinion states, citing language in the federal law and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s own regulations.

The families suing Granite City contended that their situation was different because they rent from private property owners, not the government. Their landlords didn’t want to evict them, but they said the city wasn’t giving them a choice.

Lexi Cortes is a reporter at the Belleville News Democrat, a reporting partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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