GRANITE CITY – No good deed goes unpunished.
As least that’s how Jessica Barron feels these days.
She lives with her partner of 18 years, Kenny Wylie, and their three children on a quiet residential street in Granite City, a blue-collar Illinois community not far from St. Louis.
In July, they heard a pounding on the door and someone shouting, “Police. Open up.”
When Jessica answered her door, she found a group of police officers on her porch with an eviction notice.
But here’s the rub: neither Jessica nor her family have broken any laws and their landlord wants them to remain tenants. But the city says they must go.
Why? Because of a friend of her son’s, who had been their houseguest for a few nights the previous winter.
“He told me his mother was dead and his father was in prison,” Jessica Barron said. “He was 19 years old and it was below zero outside. I told him he could sleep on our sofa that night. I also told him our door was always open to him.”
Jessica said she was raised to help others.
“I may only have three biological children. But lots of kids call me, ‘Mom.’ “
The friend of their son stayed in their home occasionally until Jessica learned that his mother was very much alive and then her family experienced a theft. She told him he was no longer welcome.
The erstwhile houseguest was later convicted of burglarizing a neighborhood tavern.
Like about 50 other Illinois communities, Granite City has a compulsory-eviction ordinance, which allows police to force landlords to evict an entire household after anyone who has stayed in the house—even a house guest—commits a crime.
It’s the sort of “mother knows best” mindset that’s all too common in government.
“No one should be punished for a crime someone else committed,” said Robert McNamara, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which is representing Jessica’s family. “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.”
Under Granite City’s “crime-free housing” ordinance, private landlords are required (on pain of fines or revocation of their rental license) to evict an entire household of tenants if police believe any member—even a house guest—committed a crime. There is no requirement that the tenants participated in or even knew about the crime. If one member of the household is a criminal, the whole household can automatically be punished for their crime.
“We want to stay in this house,” Jessica said. “Buying a home isn’t an option for us, and with an eviction on our record, it’ll be nearly impossible to find another place to rent. I cannot believe we could end up homeless because we choose to open our home to someone in need—someone we trusted, but who was not the person he claimed to be.”
At the end of the day, ordinances like the one in Granite City have little to do with punishing criminals and everything to do with punishing renters who happen to be friends, family or just roommates with a person who commits a crime.
Institute for Justice attorney Sam Gedge said he is seeking a federal court order to block the city from evicting the family.
“What Granite City is doing is not just wrong, it is plainly unconstitutional. The Constitution does not allow the government to punish people for who their roommates are or for crimes other people have committed. The government cannot take away your home—whether you own it or rent it—because of something someone else did somewhere else,” he said.
SCOTT REEDER is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.