In 2016, Debi and Andy moved into a modest home in Granite City with Debi’s youngest daughter, then seven months pregnant with her first child. The daughter moved out about six months later to live with her older sister in Missouri and, at some point thereafter, eventually began struggling with substance abuse. By May of 2019, it was clear to Debi that something had to change. She took in her daughter’s two children and made clear to her daughter that she would not be allowed to see them until she could prove she was ready to get clean and get her life in order. When that happened, Debi made clear, she and Andy would do everything in their power to help. But until that happened, the daughter had to go.
Debi had hoped exactly that was happening when her daughter called to ask for help this past summer, saying that she and her new boyfriend wanted to get clean. Debi promptly drove to where they were living in Misouri and brought the two of them to an in-patient treatment center in Granite City, where she stayed until they were taken in.
But the pair seem to have promptly changed their minds. Late that night, they turned up at Debi and Andy’s house having checked themselves out of the medical center. After Debi and Andy refused to let them stay in the house or to drive them back to Missouri, they left. And, apparently, some time later, they were arrested for attempting to steal a van. The pair soon bonded out of jail and, to date, have not been convicted of any crime.
But Granite City nonetheless ordered Debi and Andy’s landlord to evict them. Not because they stole anything—they didn’t. And not even because anyone who lived with them stole anything—Debi’s daughter and her boyfriend lived in Missouri. Instead, Granite City demanded their eviction under its compulsory eviction law because Debi’s daughter (a houseguest) had committed a crime.
Compulsory Eviction Laws Like Granite City’s Punish Innocent People for the Crimes of Their Roommates, Parents or Children
Compulsory eviction laws like Granite City’s trace their roots to “one-strike” policies adopted by public housing authorities in the 1980s and 1990s. 1
Under those policies, the government (acting as landlord) routinely evicted whole families on the grounds that a single member of the family had committed a crime, arguing these harsh policies were necessary to keep large public housing complexes safe. Innocent tenants fought back in court, but, in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal law allowing public housing authorities to evict even innocent tenants based on crimes committed by family members or guests. 2
That ruling was strictly limited to the public housing sphere; the Court suggested the due process analysis might be “entirely different” if the government were to eject private renters from their homes. 3
Despite the explicit narrowness of the Supreme Court’s ruling, municipalities across the country inexplicably took that decision as license to start imposing similar compulsory eviction requirements on private landlords and tenants as well. 4
The result is that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of municipalities across the country have adopted “crime-free” housing ordinances. The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law has identified more than 50 municipalities in Illinois with crime-free housing ordinances. 5
A separate analysis by a Minnesota-based tenants’ rights association found almost 50 compulsory eviction jurisdictions in the Twin Cities metro area alone. 6
These laws vary in their severity. Some apply only to crimes that lack serious penalties and rely on informally pressuring landlords to evict those who commit crimes. At the far end of the spectrum are laws like Granite City’s—laws that mandate eviction for crimes committed anywhere by anyone—a roommate, a parent, a child—in the household and that carry serious penalties for landlords who resist.
A Pattern of Contempt for Renters’ Property Rights
Of course, Granite City’s compulsory eviction law doesn’t apply to everybody; it mandates evicting only people who rent their homes. In other words, Debi and Andy aren’t being kicked out just because a houseguest committed a crime. They’re being kicked out because a houseguest committed a crime, and Debi and Andy aren’t rich enough to qualify for a traditional mortgage.
But that is no reason to punish them. Your home is your castle, whether you own it or rent it, and a lease confers property rights just as a deed does. The government cannot extinguish those rights just because it chooses not to respect them. No one thinks Granite City could get away with evicting a homeowner (or forcing a bank to foreclose on a homeowner) just because a teenage roommate broke the law. Granite City thinks it can get away with it only because Debi and Andy are renting.
This sort of governmental contempt for renters is not unusual. Whether they are forcing renters to submit to intrusive government inspections of their homes or forcing people into homelessness, local governments consistently treat renters as if they—and their rights—were second class. But renters count, and so do their legal rights. And Granite City is about to learn as much: Debi and Andy have teamed up with the Institute for Justice to sue Granite City in federal court, standing up for the basic principle that where renters live should be between them and their landlord—not between their landlord and the cops.
What Granite City is doing is not just wrong. It violates both the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The Constitution does not allow the government to punish people for who their roommates are or for crimes other people have committed. The Supreme Court has said that the government can evict its own tenants based on crimes committed by members of their household. But the Court has expressly noted that this does not mean the government has the power to demand the eviction of private tenants based on nothing more than their association (or even past association) with people the government deems undesirable. At bottom, the most fundamental promise of our constitutional order is that everyone is innocent until proven guilty—and that means proven guilty of a crime they themselves committed. The government cannot take your home—whether you own it or rent it—because someone else did something wrong somewhere else.
In addition to claims under the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause, Debi and Andy are asserting a claim under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause and invoking the constitutional right to association.
Debi and Andy are represented by the Institute for Justice’s Sam Gedge and Robert McNamara.
The Institute for Justice
The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty and the nation’s premier defender of property rights. IJ defends the rights of homeowners, as it did in Kelo v. City of New London, and it defends the property rights of renters, as it has done in its pathbreaking class action challenge to New York’s no-fault eviction policy and its repeated defense of the Fourth Amendment rights of tenants objecting to unconstitutional mandatory government inspections. This is also not the first time the Institute for Justice has litigated in the St. Louis area. In 2015, IJ filed a class action lawsuit challenging the city of Pagedale’s use of municipal fines for trivial housing code violations to raise government revenue. That lawsuit resulted in a court order ending Pagedale’s abusive system and putting in place a monitoring plan to ensure it never returns.