Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
Groups across Illinois, from nonprofits to real estate associations, have been calling for changes to cities’ policies for renters because they say the rules that are meant to prevent crime violate tenants’ and landlords’ rights.
Some civil rights advocates spoke out against crime-free housing ordinances years before Granite City’s was the subject of federal lawsuits.
The Shriver Center on Poverty Law in Chicago published a report in 2013 advising cities not to pass crime-free housing or similar nuisance property ordinances and warning that they could face legal liability for the rules.
The lawsuits against Granite City were filed in 2019 alleging that the city is illegally forcing landlords to evict tenants for crimes committed outside of their homes by a guest without their knowledge, which homeowners don’t have to worry about.
Local and statewide organizations for landlords — the Metro East Real Estate Investors Association and the Illinois Rental Property Owners Association — have also come out against the policies, according to members. They say they have been meeting with state legislators about how to put a stop to the rules.
Landlord Donn Schaefer is a past president of both groups. He sees crime-free housing as the latest example of the government taking away property rights, and he worries about where it could lead. He has owned rentals since 1978. His properties are all outside of Granite City.
“The premise of crime-free was admirable, but it’s been taken way to the extreme,” he said. “The part that really scares me is the fact that you’re not requiring absolute proof of a crime. … ‘Preponderance of evidence’ is all that’s needed. … If that’s going on with rental real estate, what’s to keep the government from some time changing that to other parts of the law?”
Emily Werth, the author of the Shriver Center’s 2013 report, recommended ways cities could “address harms” that their policies might cause, including that they require a criminal conviction before enforcing an eviction. Renters can be evicted before they or their guests have been convicted of a crime in Metro East cities, including Granite City, Belleville, Collinsville, O’Fallon and Alton.
“The consequences of displacing someone from their home can be severe,” including homelessness and taking children out of their school, Werth said in an interview with the BND.
Granite City officials declined to be interviewed because of the ongoing litigation, but the city says in court filings that its rules protect the community.
Werth argues a crime-free policy in the private rental market does more harm than good by displacing people. She is an ACLU of Illinois staff attorney today.
“It is an extremely crude tool if its objective is public safety,” she said.
Schaefer compared crime-free housing to cancer because of the way it has spread across Illinois. “We’ve got to kill it,” Schaefer said.
When the Shriver Center’s report came out seven years ago, the nonprofit counted more than 100 towns in Illinois that had either a crime-free housing or nuisance property ordinance, noting that it wasn’t a comprehensive list.
A Madison County housing provider and member of the Metro East landlord group said she opposes crime-free housing because she thinks it violates renters’ rights and because it costs landlords. She asked not to be identified because she fears repercussions from the municipalities she works in.
She estimates that she spends $800 on a single eviction in court, and she loses revenue on the property until someone new moves in.
“I’ve heard more and more people in our organization and nationally that want to get out of the business, because why would you have a business if you cannot make a profit?” she said. “You can’t stay in business.”
Granite City property owner Malissa Gray said she thinks landlords who have frequent evictions over crime-free violations aren’t doing enough to screen their tenants. The city encourages background checks for criminal convictions in its mandatory training for landlords.
“Of course someone’s going to tell you, ‘No, I’ve never had any evictions. No, I’ve never done anything illegal. No, I have no felonies,’ and then you look them up, and they’re three pages long, and some of them are violent, some of them are drugs,” she said.
“Some people just don’t care,” Gray said of landlords. “They’re about, ‘Hey, these people pay their rent every month, so who cares if they’re creating a problem? It’s not my problem.’”
Local landlords said they had spoken with Democratic state Reps. Monica Bristow and Jay Hoffman as of late 2019 about how to make it so that local governments can’t pass crime-free housing policies.
In a statement to the Belleville News-Democrat, Bristow, D-Godfrey, said: “Crime-free housing is a complicated issue, and I believe that it’s something best handled by those who know their communities best. What works in one part of the state is not always workable in another, and different problems affect different communities.
“I would want local law enforcement, tenants, property owners and all stakeholders to be at the table during the discussion of solutions or legislation on the issue.”
Hoffman, D-Swansea, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Lexi Cortes covers government accountability for the Belleville News-Democrat, holding officials and institutions accountable and tracking how taxpayer money is spent.
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