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Op-Ed: How Illinois families can face eviction for crimes they didn’t commit

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Friday, August 16, 2019  |  Commentary  |  By Austin Berg | The Center Square

Crime (28) , Housing (51)
Jessica Barron was resting in her room on a June afternoon.

“Mom,” said her 14-year-old son, stirring her awake, “there’s an officer here.”

Jessica heard pounding on the door. She opened it, and a police officer handed her a stack of papers. Her heart sank.

Jessica and her high-school sweetheart Kenny Wylie were born and raised in Granite City, Illinois. So were their three children. And since 2017, the family has been leasing-to-own their very first home.

But now Granite City is trying to kick them out.

It’s not because they owe money to anyone. Nothing’s wrong with the house, and their landlord wants them to stay. No, Jessica and her family face homelessness because they led authorities to a criminal.

“I didn’t know it was legal to do this,” Jessica said. “This is insane. I didn’t commit a crime.”

In fact, it all stemmed from an act of kindness.

Last year Jessica started letting a friend of her eldest son stay overnight in her home. He had nowhere else to sleep during the winter. And as the weather improved, he wasn’t around as much.

That teenager burglarized a local bar in May. Police asked Jessica, on her way home, if she knew where he was. She hadn’t seen him recently. But when she arrived home later the suspect was there. She whispered to her son to quietly leave the house and go tell the police. The police came, and Jessica led them to the basement where the suspect was hiding.

Because of that arrest, the city is ordering Jessica’s landlord to evict her entire family.

Sound absurd? She’s not alone.

Illinois is home to more than 100 municipalities with compulsory eviction laws, which fall under “nuisance property” or “crime-free housing” ordinances. These laws force landlords to evict renters due to interactions with the criminal-justice system at the property, including something as commonplace as calls to the police or an incident report. These rules can apply even when the tenant was the victim of a crime, called the police for protection, or didn’t even know a crime had been committed by a guest or family member.

Jessica does not receive government housing assistance, and her home is privately owned. But most of these ordinances in Illinois apply to all rental housing, not just publicly owned housing or families using Section 8 vouchers. In some cases they even include homeowners.

“You spend years trying to convince people to report crime, then [cities are] saying three calls to police in six months is grounds for eviction,” said Kate Walz, vice president of advocacy for the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. Walz receives constant cold calls from local landlords faced with two bad options: evict a tenant who hasn’t caused any problems or break the law and risk going out of business.

Granite City’s 2010 crime-free ordinance allows the city to force landlords to evict entire families if one member of the household, or even a guest, committed a crime. An Illinois Newsroom analysis showed the city sent at least 300 notices to landlords to evict tenants because of violations of the ordinance over the last five years. Twenty-eight were the result of a call for help during an overdose.

Forcing drug addicts onto the street does not improve public safety.

“Does this actually make rental housing safer? I think the answer is no,” Walz said. “There are better tools. This is a blunt instrument that puts landlords in an impossible situation.”

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian nonprofit law firm, has filed a federal lawsuit fighting back on behalf of Jessica and her landlord. And Peoria is facing a separate lawsuit from a community organization represented by the Shriver Center, which claims the city’s nuisance rules discriminate against domestic abuse victims.

But Illinois state lawmakers shouldn’t sit back and wait for more court decisions.

Iowa lawmakers set a good example in 2016, when they passed a “right to assistance” law barring cities from enforcing penalties due to police calls from a victim of a crime, or calls on behalf of the victim.

Illinois state leaders should convene public safety officials, local governments, landlords and tenants to set more effective standards for community safety.

“Crime-free housing” ordinances have clearly gone too far. And Illinoisans shouldn’t feel like unwanted guests in their own homes.