Last fall and winter, Jessica Barron and Kenny Wylie let one of their teenaged son's friends, who described himself as homeless, stay at their house in Granite City, Illinois. At first the teenager, Jason Lynch, slept at the house intermittently; later, as the weather got colder, he often was there several nights a week. Barron and Wylie's reward for that act of kindness, if the city has its way, will be government-ordered eviction from their home.
After Lynch broke into a local restaurant last May, the city invoked its "crime-free housing" ordinance, which demands eviction when "any member of lessee's household" commits a crime. In this case, the crime did not happen at the rental property, and Barron and Wylie did not participate in it, know about it ahead of time, or help Lynch evade the police afterward. In fact, Barron turned Lynch in after she found him hiding in her basement. But none of that matters under Granite City's ordinance, which holds tenants strictly liable for the crimes of household members, including temporary residents like Lynch.
"This effort to make an innocent family homeless violates the federal Constitution at a bedrock level," the Institute for Justice argues in a federal lawsuit it filed yesterday on behalf of Barron, Wylie, and their landlord, Bill Campbell, who does not want to evict them. The complaint says the crime-free housing ordinance violates their due process rights, the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection, the Fifth Amendment's ban on taking property for "public use" without "just compensation," and freedom of association, which is protected by the First Amendment.
Barron and Wylie, who have three teenaged children, have been living in the house at 1632 Maple Street in Granite City for two years. They had planned to buy it eventually under a rent-to-own contract with Campbell. But the city is demanding that he abrogate that contract and threatening to revoke his rental license if he fails to do so. One police officer even threatened to arrest Campbell, although it's not clear what the charge would be.
If Barron and Wylie are evicted, they will lose their property interest in the home and will have to find somewhere else where they and their children can live, which may be difficult in light of the eviction. "They do not own or rent any other property," the complaint says. "If they are kicked out of their home, they are not sure where they would go. They do not have the resources to immediately rent another property. They would likely need to rely on charity from family to avoid rendering themselves and their children homeless."
Campbell, meanwhile, considers Barron and Wylie good tenants, is happy with their arrangement, and would like it to continue. If the city forces him to evict them, that process will cost money, as will the effort to find new tenants, and he will lose rental income in the meantime.
Given these costs, the Institute for Justice argues, Granite City is depriving Barron, Wylie, and Campbell of their property without due process or just compensation. The lawsuit also describes three equal protection violations: The city is arbitrarily treating residents who have rent-to-own contracts differently from residents who have mortgages or own their homes outright; arbitrarily treating Campbell differently from all the other landlords in Granite City, who unlike him are free to accept Barron and Wylie as tenants; and arbitrarily treating Barron and Wylie differently from "everyone else in the world (except for Jason Lynch)," who, like the couple, "have no responsibility for Jason Lynch's crime." These distinctions cannot survive "any level of scrutiny," the complaint says.
The attempted eviction also implicates freedom of association, I.J. argues. "The only reason that Granite City is trying to force Jessica and Kenny out of their home is that they allowed Jason Lynch to stay there," the complaint says. "Allowing a teenager to stay in your home to shelter him from the cold is a form of association. Punishing Jessica and Kenny for crimes committed by Jason Lynch is punishing them for their decision to associate with Jason Lynch."
In 2002 the Supreme Court upheld a "one strike" public housing policy under which tenants were evicted based on drug-related activity involving a household member, even if the lessees were not involved in it and did not know about it. But that was a situation where the government was "acting as a landlord of property that it owns, invoking a clause in a lease to which respondents have agreed and which Congress has expressly required." Here the government is trying to force eviction over the objections of a private landlord.
"No one should be punished for a crime someone else committed," says I.J. senior attorney Robert McNamara. "That simple notion is at the heart of our criminal justice system—that we are all innocent until proven guilty. And yet Granite City is punishing an innocent family for a crime committed by someone they barely knew."