About two years ago, Jessica and Kenny moved into a modest home in Granite City, signing a long-term “rent-to-own” lease that would eventually give them the ability to purchase the home outright. Lifelong residents of Granite City, Jessica and Kenny have been in a committed relationship since 2001 and wanted to establish a permanent home for themselves and their three children. And, for a time, they did.
The small house became a haven for the couple, their children and, occasionally, their children’s friends: Jessica and Kenny have always prided themselves on their ability to provide safe space for young people who are facing troubles or have nowhere else to turn. Kenny is a certified foster parent with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and Jessica sees herself as a mother not just to her own kids but to any of her kids’ friends who seem to need some mothering or just an occasional place to stay.
That commitment to kindness came back to bite them in 2019. That winter, one of their older son’s friends started staying over at their house several days a week. The young man was largely homeless, and (he said) his own mother had passed away. The arrangement didn’t work out: Jessica caught him trying to steal from her, and it eventually came out that many of the things he had told them simply weren’t true—among other things, his mother was still alive. So Jessica and Kenny told him he had to go. Unfortunately, Jessica was not the only person the young man tried to steal from; in May 2019, he committed a burglary at a restaurant in town.
The restaurant burglary got him arrested. In fact, Jessica was the one who turned him in: Finding him in her house after she heard about the burglary, she summoned the police so they could arrest him. He pleaded guilty in short order and was sentenced to probation. For him, the case was over. But for Jessica and Kenny, the saga was just beginning.
A few weeks after the arrest, Jessica saw a local police officer while she was dealing with an unrelated ticket, and the officer expressed surprise that she still lived in her home. “You’re supposed to be evicted,” he said. “I’m the one who’s evicting you.” When Jessica said there had been no eviction notice, the officer promptly announced he would be arresting her landlord for failing to kick her out. About a month later, officers pounded on Jessica’s door looking to serve her landlord with a formal letter ordering him to evict the family.
The source of all the trouble is what Granite City calls its “crime-free” housing ordinance. But the ordinance has little to do with fighting crime: Instead, it expends city resources pushing low-income people like Jessica and Kenny into homelessness while actual criminals are let off with far less punishment. Under the ordinance, private landlords are required (on pain of fines and revocation of their rental license) to evict any tenant upon command if any member of the tenant’s household commits a crime anywhere. And that is true even if, as in Jessica and Kenny’s case, the actual criminal no longer lives in the house.
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.[i]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.[ii]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.[iii]
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.[iv]
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.[v]A separate analysis by a Minnesota-based tenants’ rights association found almost 50 compulsory eviction jurisdictions in the Twin Cities metro area alone.[vi]
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, Jessica and Kenny aren’t being kicked out just because a teenager who was staying with them committed a burglary. They’re being kicked out because the teenager committed a burglary—and Jessica and Kenny 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 Jessica and Kenny 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 like Jessica and Kenny 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: Jessica, Kenny and their landlord, Bill, 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, Jessica, Kenny and Bill are asserting a claim under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause and invoking the constitutional right to association.
Jessica, Kenny and Bill 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.
[ii]HUD v. Rucker, 535 U.S. 125 (2002).
[iv]See, e.g., Ramsey, supra, at 1151.
[v]Emily Werth, Sargent Shriver Nat’l Ctr. on Poverty Law, The Cost of Being “Crime Free”: Legal and Practice Consequences of Crime Free Rental Housing and Nuisance Property Ordinances(2013), https://tinyurl.com/y3mt5kwa.
[vi]Eric Hauge, The Problem With Crime-Free Housing Ordinances, ACLU Minn. (June 19, 2018), https://www.aclu-mn.org/en/news/problem-crime-free-housing-ordinances