DeKalb’s crime-free housing debate heats up as advocacy groups raise concerns, city responds

City issues news released “dispelling misconceptions”, housing groups list concerns

DeKalb City Hall along Lincoln Highway

DeKALB – More than a dozen fair housing advocacy groups recently raised concerns about DeKalb’s proposed crime-free housing plan attempting to reduce crime by targeting the city’s negligent property owners with hefty fines and other punishments.

In two letters sent to the DeKalb City Council ahead of Monday’s expected ordinance vote, advocacy groups claimed DeKalb’s proposed plan could harm crime victims and violates Illinois law, arguments city officials disputed Monday. The city issued a news release Monday for the purpose of what city leaders said was dispelling misconceptions circulating about the proposed ordinance dubbed the “Crime-Free Initiative.”

The advocacy letters sent to Mayor Cohen Barnes and the DeKalb City Council last Thursday and Friday were shared with the Daily Chronicle. The groups — which include Springfield-based Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Housing Action Illinois and the DuPage County NAACP among others — argued the city’s proposed crime-free housing plan violates Illinois’ Human Rights Act and Fair Housing Act. City officials disputed that notion also.

The DeKalb City Council issued its unanimous preliminary support of the ordinance Monday, though elected to hold a final approval vote until its next meeting expected Oct. 24 to give city staff and residents more time to read through the proposal.

City leaders for months have faced growing pressure after a string of unrelated summer gun violence resulted in the city’s first homicide of 2022 outside a north side apartment complex and a midday shooting involving three teenagers, including a 13-year-old who later was charged with attempted murder.

In a Monday news release, the city said its proposed crime-free housing plan “will be an important tool in combating weapons offenses and other crimes by holding landlords accountable for allowing crimes to continue at their properties.”

Some fair housing advocate groups, however, say they’re concerned about the plan’s potential impact on domestic violence victims and minority communities. They say the ordinance potentially could fuel racial discrimination.

In a letter sent to Barnes Oct. 6, the groups allege the proposed changes to city code involving landlord and tenant regulations “unfairly penalize and create an unsafe and hostile environment for survivors of domestic and sexual violence.” It was sent by representatives of the Worth-based Arab American Family Services, Springfield-based Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, San Fransisco-based National Housing Law Project and Chicago-based The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence.

“Immigrant, undocumented, and refugee survivors need to feel confident that they can call the police to protect themselves and their children, without fear of losing their homes,” the letter states, adding the proposed ordinance could dissuade victims from reporting their abusers for fear of retribution.

City officials on Monday disputed that would be the case, according to the news release. Under the Crime-Free Initiative’s proposed language, crimes determined to be sexual or domestic in nature cannot be subject to municipal fines or penalties under city code. That doesn’t mean police can’t investigate an alleged crime if reported, but the city won’t hold municipal powers over such incidents, according to the ordinance language.

Landlords could also face fines up to $1,000 if they’re found to have retaliated or evicted a tenant for reporting a crime, according to the proposed ordinance.

City attorney Matt Rose said officials are aware that Illinois law prohibits punitive measures against those reporting a sexual or domestic crime, and will not take action to evict such instances.

“The intent of the city’s program always, is to never punish any victim whatsoever,” Rose said Sept. 29. “The idea is to encourage people to report crimes. There’s many ways to do a crime-free housing ordinance, but the bare bones and essential gist of it is that it allows the landlord to evict a tenant who commits a criminal act.”

The city of DeKalb reiterated Monday that the city’s intent is to target weapons-related offenses, and take “action against landlords who are allowing crimes to occur on their properties while having minimal impact on those who have created a safe place to live,” the release states.

The 5-page letter from the domestic violence prevention groups also argues that DeKalb’s proposed ordinance forces survivor and victims of abuse, most often women of color, to choose between housing and safety. If they call to report a crime, they could also be forced out of housing if their abuser is evicted.

“There is no evidence that these ordinances or programs reduce crime, and many residents once learning that they could be evicted for seeking police or emergency assistance, stop calling 911,” the letter states.

City leaders also disputed what they said was another misconception, that the proposed ordinance requires landlords to conduct background checks on tenants.

An Oct. 6 letter sent to the DeKalb City Council by another group of housing advocates – NYU Law Civil Rights Clinic, Loyola-based Health Justice Project, the National Housing Law Project, Housing Action Illinois, HOPE Fair Housing Center, DuPage County NAACP, Illinois Realtors, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the Shriver Center on Poverty Law and the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance – also draws concerns about background checks.

“Refusing to rent to someone based on an ‘arrest record’ can only be viewed as ‘prohibiting unlawful activity’ if one believes that a person who was arrested in the past will commit crimes in the future,” the letter states. “This view denies that anyone who has had the label of criminality attached to them has the capacity for change.”

City officials said their proposed law amendments don’t require a background check. “While a plan will be required, it is not required that the plan include background checks.”

The housing advocacy groups also raised concerns over eviction as a tool to prohibiting crime. In its news release, city officials said that the proposed ordinance doesn’t require eviction either.

“Landlords will be able to prevent a penalty if they can show steps are being taken to provide crime-free housing,” the city release states. “It is not a requirement that these steps include eviction.”

Crime-Free Initiative

Under the proposal, the city has outlined criteria for what it calls a “targeted offense” in the event unlawful activity occurs on a rental property. Any action found to be a felony or misdemeanor would also be considered unlawful and subject to discipline under the proposal.

Crimes such as domestic or sexual violence would not be eligible for additional municipal fines or penalties under the proposed ordinance under Illinois law. State law prohibits home rule municipalities, such as DeKalb, from targeting tenants or landlords based on reports of domestic or sexual violence which occurred in a unit.

The proposal allows landlords and property managers to ban tenants’ guests who break the law. Rental properties and tenant spaces could be subject to inspection if they’re chronically disorderly or in violation of no-trespass agreements or the city’s municipal code.

Should a crime occur at a rental property, the city could issue a criminal nuisance property violation. According to the proposal, a first violation would come with a $2,500 fine, $5,000 for a second violation and $10,000 for third and subsequent violations. Three violations also would mandate closure of the rental property or unit for at least 12 months. If the landlord were to abate ongoing criminal activity, Rose said Monday, the city would issue a stay order, meaning any further punitive measures could be halted.

Tenants facing eviction or landlords facing action would also be granted due process in court proceedings prior to punitive action, Rose said.

Landlords who fail to comply with the crime-free housing lease provision also could be fined $250, documents show. Under the proposed changes, that fine could grow by $1,000 per day for every day that the rental agreement does not include the crime-free housing lease provision, according to city documents.

Tenants or people who contact police to alert them of a crime would not be penalized under the city’s proposal, documents state.

Daily Chronicle reporter Megann Horstead contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 8 p.m. Oct. 10, 2022 with additional information from DeKalb City Council’s meeting. Visit Tuesday for more on Monday’s council meeting discussion.

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