A federal court has said it’s A-OK to evict entire families for the crimes of another, regardless if they knew, were a party to, or even resided with the perpetrator. This is what happened to Granite City, Illinois resident, Debi Brumit. A city ordinance mandates an entire family can be given the boot if related to someone being arrested anywhere within city limits.
In June 2019, Brumit, her partner Andy Simpson, and two of Brumit’s grandchildren were unceremoniously evicted from their rental home after her daughter and her boyfriend stole a van. It would be mere days later that the Granite City Police Department sent a letter to the landlord – despite the homeowner’s objections.
“Regardless of the landlord’s preferences, the police said Debi and Andy had to be evicted because of their association with the lawbreaker,” The Daily Beast reported.
Represented by the Institute for Justice, attorney Sam Gedge filed a lawsuit on the couple’s behalf, citing civil rights abuses.
“When it comes to guilt by association, the Constitution says that’s not OK,” Gedge told St. Louis Public Radio.
Gedge and the institute filed its civil rights lawsuit against Granite City in 2019. Around the same time, reporters were also investigating the sweeping scope of the ordinance: In 2020, The BellevilleNews-Democrat examined five years of eviction data. It found roughly 500 people evicted from their homes, but nearly half had never been accused of any wrongdoing. A quarter of the evictions stemmed from crimes that happened outside the home being rented.
With Gedge’s help, the couple was granted a temporary injunction against the eviction order, which the city fought. Scrutiny and backlash prompted Granite City to amend its ordinance in 2020, but it continued to fight to keep its archaic law.
Three years later, a court ruled in favor of the city. District Court Judge Staci Yandel wrote:
“Although Plaintiffs submitted statistics to show that the CFHO may not have accomplished the degree of protection that the City intended they have presented no evidence sufficient to negate the stated basis for enactment of the ordinance. There can be no question that crime deterrence and prevention are rational and legitimate reasons for a municipality to enact legislation. As such, in the absence of evidence of pretext, the CFHO satisfies rational basis constitutional review and does not violate Plaintiffs’ right to freedom of association.”
Critics have condemned these types of laws as discriminatory, racially motivated, and biased. In a Michigan Law Review study titled, The New Housing Segregation: The Jim Crow Effects of Crime-Free Housing Ordinances, NYU Legal Professor Deborah Archer, wrote:
“Crime-free housing ordinances are one of the most salient examples of the role law plays in producing and sustaining racial segregation today . They are, in this respect, a critical mech- anism for effectuating the new housing segregation. Crime-free housing ordinances enable racial segregation by importing the racial biases, racial logics, and racial disparities of the criminal legal system into private housing markets.”
There are over 2000 municipalities across 48 states, that have these punitive laws on the book. These laws generally take no consideration into the length of time since the conviction nor whether or not the tenant was even aware of any illegal activity, and will only exacerbate an already epidemic-level housing crisis. Rents are increasing at double-digit percentage levels, worsening the country’s epidemic of homelessness.
But tenants aren’t the only ones affected — so are the landlords with long-term tenants, who have paid their rent on time and caused little trouble. According to St. Louis on the Air:
“Multiple landlords have also spoken out against the ordinance. Earlier this week, former Granite City landlord Kevin Link told St. Louis on the Air that he tried to fight an eviction order against one of his tenants. At one hearing, he said he opposed an eviction order, arguing to a local judge that his tenants had not been convicted, only accused, of a crime. According to Link, a police captain overseeing the crime free-housing program responded, ‘They’re guilty if I say they’re guilty.’”
Granite City has been accused by landlords of pressuring them to evict tenants who have done nothing wrong, levying hefty fees and fines, as well as cumbersome “crime-free” housing training.
“Rather than forcing direct evictions and going after landlords’ licenses, the city has saddled landlords with additional licensing and fee requirements if they house people convicted of or people associated with those convicted of crimes,” The Appeal reported.
According to Institute for Justice’s Gedge, “In many cases,” he said, “the end result will likely be the same: to avoid the special licensing requirements, landlords will feel pressure to simply evict entire families when there has been a crime-free violation.”
“For over a decade, Granite City has coerced the eviction of quite literally hundreds of families in this modest sized city,” said Gedge, who has represented other tenants challenging the crime-free ordinance in federal court. “In midsize towns, the police have a lot of power and the mayor has a lot of power. If you’re a small landlord, you don’t really have a lot of leverage—you do what they say.
“If you have gumption like Bill or Kevin, you can fight,” he added.
The civil rights advocate is referring to small landlords Bill Campbell and Kevin Link who have been pushing back against Granite City for years on behalf of their renters, sometimes spending out of their own pockets to relocate tenants, as was the case for Link who refused to evict a tenant who was on dialysis.
The disturbing part is that it’s the local municipality deciding a resident’s housing fate – not the landlord. The government stepping in and usurping the power of private lessors, demanding they evict those who haven’t been convicted of a crime. And for those who have been convicted of crimes, no account is given for the time they have been on the straight and narrow. Landlords choosing to give a second chance run the risk of losing their rental license – and subsequent livelihood.
Link told The Appeal:
“My whole life, working and saving and everything, and I’m drawing on [my savings] every year now just to make ends meet over this thing,” Link said of his ongoing conflicts with the city. He’s been able to get by lately thanks to pauses on mortgage requirements brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but he doesn’t know what he’ll do after that. “At some point the banks are going to want their money back and I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” he said.
The correlation between this discriminatory housing practice and a decrease in crime has not been proven. Professor Archer suggests the ordinances are more racially than legally motivated, writing in her article, While there is no evidence that these ordinances reduce crime, there is reason to believe that they play a role in restricting access to affordable housing and promoting racial segregation.”
Original reporting by Sam Gedge at Institue for Justice for The Daily Beast.
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