Federal Lawsuit Claims Granite City’s Crime-Free Housing Rules Are Unconstitutional

By Mary Hansen

The city of Granite City in the Metro East is facing a lawsuit claiming its crime-free housing rules are unconstitutional.

Attorneys with the Institute for Justice , a libertarian, public interest law firm based in Arlington, Virginia, filed the lawsuit in the Southern District of Illinois’ U.S. District Court in East St. Louis Thursday on behalf of two tenants and their landlord.

In June, the Granite City Police Department ordered the landlord, William Campbell, to evict the tenants, Kenneth Wylie and Jessica Barron, according to their claim. The stated reason was their son’s friend, who was staying intermittently at their house, was arrested for burglarizing a local bar in May.

The crime-free housing ordinance requires landlords to evict tenants if they or members of their household are arrested or suspected of crimes, such as drug possession, or if they repeatedly violate a number of city ordinances, such as littering or letting the grass grow too long. Landlords can face fines or lose their rental license if they do not. Dozens of Illinois communities have similar rules.

The suit claims Granite City violated the couple’s due process rights, rights to equal protection and freedom of association.

“No one should be punished for a crime that someone else committed. But that’s precisely what Granite City is trying to do here,” said Sam Gedge, an attorney with the Institute for Justice.

A representative for Granite City said city officials have not yet reviewed the lawsuit and declined to comment.

At an event this week hosted by state Sen. Rachelle Crowe, a Democrat who represents parts of the Metro East, Granite City Lieutenant Mike Parkinson led a discussion on the rules.

“The crime-free housing program in Granite City has benefited our community, so today we were able to continue the conversation on implementing these programs in other cities,” Parkinson said in a statement released by Crowe’s office.

Campbell, the landlord, said he wants the family to continue renting from him.

“This is wrong. They’re abusing the program,” Campbell said. “I’m just hoping we can draw some attention to it.”

Barron said she and Wylie can’t afford to move. She said she has an “open-door” policy at her house for her children’s friends. If anyone needs a meal or a place to stay, she said, they’re always welcome.

“I understand I opened my home to some of these people. But this is still my home,” Barron said. “And I was just being kind to somebody. And for me being kind, now something is being taken from me.”

Granite City is home to around 30,000 residents, and about a third are renters. The city adopted crime-free housing rules in 2010, which supporters say makes neighborhoods safer and reduces crime.

Wylie and Barron still live in their home with their three teenage children while they appeal the eviction notice with the city. Gedge said they’re seeking a court injunction to keep the couple from losing their home while the lawsuit is pending.

Gedge said he hopes to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, so the ruling applies to hundreds, if not thousands of towns that have similar rules.

“Our hope is that this case, will stem the tide when it comes to those unconstitutional acts,” he said.

Over the past five years, Granite City police have sent at least 300 notices to landlords to evict tenants because of violations of the crime-free housing ordinance, according to an Illinois Newsroom analysis published in May of police records obtained through a Freedom Of Information Act request.

The analysis showed that in dozens of cases, landlords were ordered to evict tenants after they’d called for help during a drug overdose.

The Institute for Justice has a similar case focused on New York City’s eviction rules.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, there’s a federal fair housing suit against Peoria that claims the city’s nuisance rules – similar to crime-free programs – discriminate against victims of domestic abuse.