Critics call Granite City's evictions 'collective punishment.' A judge calls them legal
Critics of Granite City’s crime-free housing ordinance say they will continue to oppose it, despite a recent ruling by a federal judge upholding the law. For years, the Metro East town’s ordinance mandated evictions of entire households in response to any arrest, even against a guest or family member.
“There's a lot left to be argued,” said Sam Gedge, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents two families that faced evictions required by the ordinance. “We're looking forward to persuading the Court of Appeals that when it comes to guilt by association, the Constitution says that's not OK.”
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 Belleville News-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.
Amid the scrutiny, Granite City amended its crime-free housing ordinance in 2020. The ordinance now requires a conviction, not just an arrest or charge, to order an eviction for an off-site crime.
However, faced with the civil rights lawsuit from the Institute for Justice, Granite City continued to defend its original crime-free housing ordinance in federal court. Last month, on Sept. 16, a federal judge upheld that ordinance, ruling against the tenants who had sued after facing eviction.
In the ruling, Judge Staci M. Yandle of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois noted that while Granite City asserted that the ordinance was created to “protect the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens,” the tenants had provided statistics “to show that the [crime-free housing ordinance] may not have accomplished the degree of protection that the City intended.”
Still, Yandle concluded, those statistics weren’t enough to prove that the city had created the ordinance with the intent to violate tenants’ civil rights. The plaintiffs suing the city, Yandle wrote, “have presented no evidence sufficient to negate the stated basis for enactment of the ordinance.”
Behind those statistics are people like Debi Brumit. In 2019, her daughter was arrested for theft. Granite City moved to evict Brumit’s entire family from the home, including her two young grandchildren and fiancé.
Brumit was aware of the city’s crime-free ordinance, even signing an addendum on her lease that said she agreed to its restrictions.
"I thought it meant if I knew about a crime being committed, and I allowed it, then I would be held accountable," she says now. "However, I knew nothing."
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.”
This week, St. Louis on the Air reached out to Granite City and Mayor Mike Parkinson with questions about the recent federal ruling and the crime-free housing ordinance. We did not hear back.
Numerous municipalities in Illinois maintain similar ordinances, requiring evictions of entire households. Granite City amended its own crime-free ordinance. It now employs a multitier licensing system that no longer forces landlords to resort to evictions for nonserious crimes. Under the amended ordinance, landlords who choose to rent to someone with a criminal conviction must pay a higher license fee, more frequently, and the city can still revoke their rental license for noncompliance.
Granite City’s focus on the spread of crime remains a prominent feature of its landlord training course, available on the city website. The training is required for obtaining a rental license. One course, titled “Crime in Rental Property,” includes slides informing future landlords that “criminals prefer rentals” and that the city views criminals “like weeds” who will “get bigger and stronger with each new success!”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.