J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · September 16, 2022

Yesterday, Judge Staci M. Yandle of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois upheld an ordinance that Granite City, Illinois, used to make hundreds of low-income families homeless. For years, Granite City enforced its “Crime Free Housing Ordinance” ruthlessly. Under the ordinance, the city would force private landlords to evict entire families if any member of the family—or even a guest—committed a crime anywhere within city limits. 

Yesterday, the federal trial court upheld Granite City’s ordinance as a valid tool of “crime deterrence and prevention.”

“Granite City’s compulsory-eviction law was unparalleled in its scale, senselessness, and cruelty,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Sam Gedge. “For years, Granite City coerced evictions against hundreds of innocent people for the crimes of husbands, wives, partners, children, and parents. We look forward eagerly to the Seventh Circuit’s confirming what should already be obvious: Granite City’s experiment with collective punishment was shameful and breathtakingly unconstitutional.”

The Institute for Justice (IJ) represents two victims of Granite City’s compulsory-eviction law. For years, Debi Brumit and Andy Simpson lived in a private rental property in the city. In 2019, however, one of Debi’s adult daughters was arrested within city limits for trying to steal a van. Debi and Andy had nothing to do with the crime. Debi’s daughter did not even live with them. But because the daughter was listed on their occupancy permit, Granite City ordered Debi and Andy’s landlord to evict them—along with two of Debi’s grandchildren (at the time, a toddler and an infant). Only after IJ secured a temporary restraining order against the city were Debi and Andy able to stay in their home.

Their experience was far from unique. In 2019, for example, Granite City ordered an entire family’s eviction because one family member kicked a police officer’s shin at a church picnic. The city ordered another household’s eviction because a member shoplifted from the Wal-Mart across town. It ordered another’s eviction because one household member drove drunk. And another’s because a guest stole mail from a front porch. It ordered a woman’s eviction because her child’s father was caught with drugs and he often would care for their son at her home. It ordered a father’s (and four children’s) eviction because his wife was caught with drugs within city limits.

Between 2014 and 2019, the city issued more than 300 compulsory-eviction orders against families living within its borders. Many of those evictions were based on crimes that did not take place at the rental homes targeted for eviction.

“Too often, Granite City treated innocent children, husbands, wives, parents, siblings, and loved ones as collateral damage,” said IJ Attorney Caroline Grace Brothers. “In the name of expelling the culpable, Granite City visited life-altering punishments on the blameless. It should go without saying that ‘guilt by association’ is not a legitimate law-enforcement tactic, and we’re confident the court of appeals will agree.”

Shortly after Debi and Andy filed their lawsuit, Granite City repealed its compulsory-eviction law. But the city has continued to defend the law vigorously and last year elevated its “Crime Free Housing Officer” to city mayor. Similar crime-free housing ordinances are common throughout the state of Illinois, and in recent years, crime-free programs have faced a flood of litigation and criticism nationwide. In 2019, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the city of Hesperia, California, over a crime-free ordinance that allegedly discriminated against Black and Latino renters. One of the leading scholars of crime-free programs has warned that “crime-free housing ordinances will intensify scrutiny and increase adverse police interactions, turning everyday interactions into sources of anxiety, trauma, and indignity.” Last year, Tampa, Florida, restructured its voluntary crime-free program in response to widespread public outcry.

“‘Crime-free-housing’ laws like Granite City’s are pervasive,” said IJ Senior Attorney Bob McNamara. “But people who lease their homes, just like people who own their homes, have the right to be free from punishment for other people’s crimes. We look forward to helping Debi and Andy establish that in court.”

The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit, public interest law firm that defends property rights nationwide. In a lawsuit against New York City, IJ ended a decades-long policy of forcing households to exclude family members from their homes. In a class action against the city of Philadelphia, IJ put a stop to a similar practice by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office that coerced property owners to waive constitutional rights. IJ is also the leading defender of civil forfeiture victims across the nation.