National group: We might sue Belleville over crime-free housing ordinance

News-DemocratMay 4, 2013 

— A proposed crime-free rental housing ordinance is under scrutiny from a national fair housing group, which warns that if a law is adopted that does not adequately protect victims of domestic and sexual violence, a civil rights lawsuit could be filed against the city.

But Ward 1 Alderman Ken Kinsella, who heads a task force to get the law enacted, said he does not believe the group's concerns will prevent the proposal from being enacted.

He said it could be voted on next month after new members of the City Council have a chance to review the ordinance. The main thrust of the ordinance would require landlords to evict renters who come to the attention of police and are found by a city-appointed hearing officer to have violated any law, or face loss of their license to rent in the city.

They would also be required to conduct a criminal record search going back at least seven years on any tenant, which could be used to deny a rental.

Beginning in February, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, based in Chicago and Boston, sent several letters criticizing the proposal to Mayor Mark Eckert, former city attorney Patrick Flynn and the city's Crime Free Housing Task Force.

In response to a request from Flynn to provide the task force with a model crime-free ordinance that meets their concerns, the nonprofit center replied none exist. The city of O'Fallon, like many Illinois communities, enacted a crime-free ordinance similar to Belleville's proposal. In order to prove a criminal violation and force an eviction, both the O'Fallon and Belleville ordinances rely on a preponderance of evidence, a much lower standard of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt.

Eckert said he will wait until a new city attorney has been appointed before responding to questions about the ordinance from reporters. Instead, Eckert sent the Belleville News-Democrat a copy of a May 1 letter from interim city attorney Thom Peters, which stated in part, "the ordinance as proposed appears to be in line with ordinances adopted elsewhere and to reasonably achieve its purpose as I understand it."

The Shriver Center's leading concern is that, despite the addition of a paragraph stating that the ordinance cannot be enforced in a way that would evict any tenant who is a crime victim, the proposal still does not fully protect women and children who are likely victims of crimes.

"The natural reaction of a landlord who learns of a police response to his property that could trigger enforcement of the ordinance will be to immediately try to remove the tenants so he can maintain his livelihood," center lawyer Emily Werth wrote in a written response to the BND and in letters to the city.

Werth said if the city "adopts the crime-free proposal and implements it in a way that violates the rights of victims of domestic and sexual violence ... then a lawsuit to vindicate those rights may prove necessary."

Werth also contended "the ordinance creates the risk that victims of abuse will stop seeking police assistance out of fear of losing their homes, which could have tragic consequences." She wrote that eviction procedures should be based on convictions and not police reports.

The group also raised a concern that the overall effect of such an ordinance could illegally discriminate against African-Americans who, they state, make up 41.4 percent of the approximately 38 percent of city residents who rent.

The center, which complimented the city for trying to make renting safer, nevertheless urged that the crime-free proposal be dropped in favor of increased reliance on existing landlord registration requirements and proposed training for those who rent properties.

Because the city receives certain federal housing money it is obligated under law to "affirmatively further fair housing," by increasing the rental stock, Werth said. A crime-free ordinance, at least as currently proposed, could work against that obligation if enough landlords lose their license to rent out properties, she argued.

Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden, who recently lost a bid to unseat Eckert as mayor, said: "We want to make sure that an innocent person won't be affected. ... You don't want to lose the integrity of what you're trying to accomplish, in the public's mind. We may be pursuing this too fast to just say we're doing something."

Hayden said implementation of the eviction penalty and loss of rental license provisions of the proposed ordinance should be based on convictions. He said the city should abandon the hearing officer idea and set up a housing court that would work with a criminal court to process cases.

Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult said "I personally still have a lot of questions."

Concerning the enforcement clause that landlords can lose their rental certificates because of criminal activity by tenants, "I don't see how they can prevent them from using their own property," Hult said.

Hult said she is concerned that tenants who have committed no crime could lose their homes because someone who happened to be at the property, or is a family member, violates the law.

As proposed, a city hearing officer would be appointed to hear appeals of eviction notices. And while a tenant could appeal an eviction case to county court, many might not have the means to hire a lawyer to do so, Hult said.

"I think that's where abuse can occur," she said, "especially where an eviction is based on a police report of domestic abuse."

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com or 618-239-2625. Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570.

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