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Cities Are Pressuring Landlords to Evict People Under ‘Crime-Free’ Housing Laws

In Granite City, Illinois, landlords have been penalized for refusing to evict tenants who have criminal records or are simply living with someone who does.

Houses in Granite City, Illinois.Paul Sableman/Flickr

One morning in June 2019, Mike Parkinson, a lieutenant with the Granite City Police Department in Illinois, left a voicemail for Bill Campbell, a local landlord. 

“If I have to present you to the mayor to revoke your business license, I guess I’ll have to do that,” he said. “We’ll be looking for you today.” 

Parkinson was calling because Campbell refused to evict his tenants—one of whom was alleged to have committed a crime—under the city’s crime-free housing ordinance

Though the city has since altered its crime-free ordinance in response to a change in state law and federal lawsuits, critics say problems remain. Rather than forcing direct evictions and going after landlords’ licenses, the city has saddled landlords with additional licensing and fee requirements if they house people convicted of or people associated with those convicted of crimes.

The new ordinance no longer focuses on removing the tenant from the property,” the city’s updated landlord training documents explain. “It now focuses it’s [sic] efforts on rewarding the landlord based on performance.” 

Some suggest that the change is not meaningful, as landlords who can’t afford the new fees will likely opt for eviction instead.

Sam Gedge, an attorney at the Institute of Justice who is suing Granite City in federal court over its crime-free ordinance, described the city’s new landlord fee structure as burdensome.  “In many cases,” he said, “the end result will likely be the same: to avoid the special licensing requirements, landlords will feel pressure to simply evict entire families when there has been a crime-free violation.”

Campbell and other Granite City landlords say Parkinson’s voicemail was part of a pattern of behavior that they endured for roughly the last 10 years until the ordinance changed. And they are still facing the consequences.

“For over a decade, Granite City has coerced the eviction of quite literally hundreds of families in this modest sized city,” said Gedge, who has represented other tenants challenging the crime-free ordinance in federal court. “In midsize towns, the police have a lot of power and the mayor has a lot of power. If you’re a small landlord, you don’t really have a lot of leverage—you do what they say. If you have gumption like Bill or Kevin, you can fight.”

Granite City is one of thousands of municipalities across 48 states—from El Cajon, California to nearly 50 towns in the Twin Cities metro area and Appleton, Wisconsin to Norristown, Pennsylvania and beyond—that have enacted similar ordinances, according to the International Crime Free Association, whose founder developed the crime-free model in the early 1990s. 

Sometimes known as nuisance property ordinances, these laws can take slightly different forms but their goals are often the same: to penalize landlords and tenants by encouraging or requiring eviction for contact with the criminal legal system, including suspected criminal activity and calls for police services. These ordinances often encourage or require private landlords to evict tenants as a result. In many places, tenants are often required to sign an addendum to their lease agreement, acknowledging the law and agreeing to its consequences.

Campbell and Kevin Link, his friend and fellow landlord, have been pushing back for years on the enforcement of the Granite City ordinance. The two, who used to work together, have organized and attended protests with other local landlords and have stopped renewing their business licenses because they say the ordinance is in breach of the Constitution and amounts to harassment of both them and their renters. 

Cynthia Cross was living in one of Link’s rental properties for roughly five years before leaving in 2019. While she was living there, the Granite City police showed up. “They said they was gonna get him and all of that,” she recalls the police saying of Link. Cross added that the police told her Link wasn’t paying his taxes when he stopped renewing his business license.

“I told them I can’t conduct business until this stuff’s addressed,” Link said. “How can I in good conscience buy the license, when in order to keep it I’ve got to throw innocent people out of their homes, not even accused of anything? It’s just not right.” 

If you’re a small landlord, you don’t really have a lot of leverage—you do what they say.

Sam Gedge Institute of Justice

Link was charged with multiple counts of no business license in October 2019. In January 2020, Granite City filed for a summary judgment against Link and the cases remain ongoing. Link says he has appeared for several hearings but the city has failed to do the same, instead filing for multiple continuances.

Campbell became familiar with his city’s crime-free ordinance about 10 years ago when Granite City Police Department Captain Michael Gagich, who led enforcement of the ordinance before retiring in 2017, called him to say that he had to evict one of his tenants. 

“I stood up for her and stuff, but 10 years ago, I didn’t have no experience with this and cops yelling at you that he’s going to take away your business license and stuff,” Campbell said. “I caved and finally got rid of the poor thing, but I felt bad about it the whole time and since then I vowed never to get pushed around and bullied into stepping on somebody’s civil liberties.”

Link has a similar story. “He called me up,” Link said of Gagich, “and said something about one of my tenants, like one of their friends or something, had gotten into trouble. It wasn’t the tenant or anybody registered there. It was somebody that wasn’t even at the building itself.”

The property in question burned down before the issue progressed further, but it wasn’t long until Link was confronted again a few months later when Granite City police found a marijuana plant growing in one of his tenant’s yards.

Link refused to evict the tenant, who was on dialysis, and his family. After meeting with the mayor and attending a court hearing, Link relocated the family to another one of his properties. “At that point, it cost me all kinds of money—moving and everything else. Now, I got a vacant house that I wouldn’t normally,” he says, adding that the process saddled him with roughly $5,000 in legal fees and moving expenses.

The Granite City ordinance has left both Campbell and Link—small landlords who rely on rent as their only source of income—teetering on the edge of going out of business. Campbell is either selling his properties at a loss or arranging contracts for deeds. Link, too, is selling his properties for what he says are pennies on the dollar.

“My whole life, working and saving and everything, and I’m drawing on [my savings] every year now just to make ends meet over this thing,” Link said of his ongoing conflicts with the city. He’s been able to get by lately thanks to pauses on mortgage requirements brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but he doesn’t know what he’ll do after that. “At some point the banks are going to want their money back and I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” he said.

The pandemic has also made the evictions that crime-free ordinances mandate exponentially more harmful. Although states and cities have imposed and extended their own eviction bans in response to COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s federal moratorium that covers the entire country expires on Jan. 31. A wave of evictions numbering into the millions is expected in February. 

Without another extension of the Illinois’s eviction moratorium from Governor J.B. Pritzker, up to roughly 542,000 renter households are estimated to be at risk of eviction filings next month. The state’s rent shortfall, affecting landlords like Campbell and Link, is estimated to be as high as $680 million

Gedge doesn’t have a hopeful outlook for the future of crime-free housing ordinances without intervention from the courts.

“Cities can do the right thing and get rid of these laws, but most don’t seem interested in doing that until they get sued and there are lawyers representing the people they’ve been victimizing.”