It's a victory for the privacy of landlords and renters in Zion, Illinois, as the city has formally agreed to change its rental inspection laws to comply with Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless searches.
The mayor and City Council of Zion, population just under 25,000, passed a rental inspection ordinance in 2015 that required all property owners to apply for certification for any residences they wanted to lease. Part of the requirement to get a rental certificate was to allow any rental unit to be inspected by city officials every year. If a landlord fails to follow the rules, they can be fined $750 per day until they comply.
Property owner Josefina Lozano had her rental units approved by the city's program. But when it came time for the city to inspect her properties in 2018, a prerequisite for an official rental certificate, the tenants of one of her units, Robert and Dorice Pierce, refused to cooperate and wouldn't allow city staff into their home. As a result, that particular unit wasn't certified. When the city attempted to force compliance in 2019, Lozano and the Pierces turned to the Institute for Justice. They sued, arguing that the program violated their Fourth Amendment rights, which protect them from unwarranted government searches.
"We have always sent letters to the city denying them access and it hasn't been a problem until this year," Dorice Pierce told Chicago's ABC affiliate in 2019. "If you want to come in here, go get a search warrant because I am not just going to let you in because you say you want to come in."
According to coverage of Zion's city leadership from the Chicago Tribune in 2017, the inspection racket was part of a concerted effort by former Mayor Al Hill to drive renters out of town:
"Zion has 3.5 percent the population of Lake County," Hill said as the council deliberated the inspection fees at the time. "We have 38 percent of the Section 8 vouchers that Lake County gives out. And it's an issue that we have to address. … We have to get our arms around all the rest of the issues that are associated with too many rental units and too much Section 8 rental units."
Complaints about too many "Section 8" houses are typically a stand-in for complaints about having too many poor people, some of whom get into trouble with the law. The Tribune story isn't just about the rental inspection program (which also charges a biennial $75 per-unit fee) but also a "crime-free" housing ordinance that resulted in letters being sent to the owners of properties where people had been victims of crimes, warning the owners that the properties could be deemed a nuisance and the residents evicted.
Zion is not the only city to implement an abusive "crime-free" program to try to drive out unwanted renters, regardless of whether they've done anything wrong. Reason's Christian Britschgi took note recently of the town of Hesperia, California, settling with the Department of Justice over abuses caused by their program.
In any event, it looks like some of Zion's abuse of landlords and renters will end. The city folded after Lozano and the Pierces sued, amending the law in April 2022 to change it so that the city can't fine property owners if they or their tenants refuse an inspection. The city suggested it would seek administrative warrants to conduct rental inspections if needed.
Last week, the plaintiffs and the Institute for Justice secured an additional victory: Judge John F. Kness of the U.S. District Court for the North District of Illinois Eastern Division signed a consent decree requiring the city to dismiss any fees or fines assessed because a tenant refused to consent to a rental inspection. The order also says the city cannot require advanced consent for inspections as a condition of approving rental certification applications.
"This consent decree is a massive victory for the basic privacy rights and property rights of renters and landlords in Zion," said I.J. Attorney Rob Peccola in a prepared statement. "If the government wants to pry into your personal spaces, revealing intimate details about your life, it should have to get a warrant."
It may seem like a small win for privacy, particularly if you own your home and don't have to rent. Still, these inspection programs are aggressive and intrusive ways that city officials go after "undesirables," many of whom have not broken the law and are simply lower income. If Zion leaders want Section 8 tenants to make up a smaller proportion of the town's residents, the legal and moral way to do that is to adopt policies that grow the town's economy.