A fair housing group is calling the city of Peoria's nuisance ordinance racially discriminatory. The Wheaton-based Hope Center has filed a federal lawsuit against the city.
Spokeswoman Anne Houghtaling said 71.6 percent of enforcement actions through the ordinance are against African-American renters, far above the 35 percent minority population in Peoria.
And Houghtaling said most enforcement is for things as little as reported truancies.
“Three calls in a certain period of time could cause your residence to be labeled a nuisance and you could lose your housing, and that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Houghtaling.
She said most enforcement actions from the nuisance ordinance did not involve drugs or violence.
The center also alleged crime victims including survivors of domestic violence were also regularly targeted under the ordinance for eviction.
“When you find instances where victims of domestic violence call for help and are found to be a nuisance and need to be evicted because they call for help, it’s shocking. It violates a fundamental covenant that we have with our local public safety officers,” said Houghtaling.
Peoria city attorney Don Leist said the city will vigorously defend the ordinance.
“Neighborhood groups support the city effort to enforce the ordinance. They want a nice place to live and we will continue to do that notwithstanding what some out of town, D.C.-based law firm says we should do,” said Leist.
“They are apparently only enforcing it against rental properties and we know that homeowners can have the same demographics, drug use, domestic violence, or some of these other things. There are uses for such an ordinance. You want every community to be safe, but I don't think this is appropriately targeted or appropriately enforced,” said Houghtaling.
The HOPE group investigation also alleged tenants are being given no opportunity to challenge nuisance allegations against them.
According to the complaint, there were more than 12,000 potential enforcement actions against properties that could have been cited as nuisances according to the criteria in the ordinance, but only 148 properties were cited and they were almost exclusively in African-American majority neighborhoods or involved African-Americans.
Peoria is not alone in enforcing such an ordinance to deprive people of needed housing in such a discriminatory way,” said John Rellman, managing partner of Relman, Dane, and Colfax, PLCC.
Earlier this year, Rellman’s firm also filed a challenge to Maplewood, Missouri’s nuisance ordinance enforcement.
The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law is also representing HOPE. Shriver Center Housing Justice Director Kate Walz said such laws are spreading and undermine public safety by forcing crime victims to suffer in silence.
“Local governments should consider other methods for improving public safety that do not jeopardize tenants’ housing rights, such as working directly with renters as partners to improve the quality and stability of their housing,” said Walz.
Houghtaling summed up what she said is a nationwide problem of race. She quoted a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by journalist Mathew Desmond called "Evicted," which found that African-American women in Milwaukee who have three children are as likely to be evicted as people who are five months behind on their rent.
“Black men are being locked up. Black women are being locked out,” according to Desmond.
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