Illinois city will pay $500,000 for selectively enforcing building codes against Latinos

The City of Elgin, Illinois has agreed to pay $500,000 to settle longstanding complaints that its enforcement of housing codes discriminated against Latino residents. 

The settlement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Department of Justice and the HOPE Fair Housing Center of Wheaton, Illinois includes a fund to compensate the victims of code enforcement discrimination. The settlement will also change the way various codes are enforced in Elgin. Inspectors will take Spanish lessons. The city will translate its housing documents into Spanish, and HOPE will open a new fair housing office in Elgin. 

City code enforcement inspectors arrived at dawn to inspect Latino residents’ homes

According to the Chicago Tribune, discrimination allegations arose in 1998 and early 1999, when several Latino families complained to HUD that inspectors came unexpectedly at dawn to gauge whether their homes were overcrowded. The residents asserted that white residents were not subject to the same types of inspections. 

In September 1999, the original complaints against the city settled for $10,000 to the Latino families and a promise that code enforcement officials would change their practices. However, HUD says it found more problems while monitoring the city’s inspections, and HOPE filed 22 more complaints against the city starting in August 2000. 

The new complaints accused the city inspectors of entering the homes of Spanish-speakers without interpreters, doing inspections without warrants, and applying occupancy rules differently to Latino residents. The city argued it was responding to housing code violations that endangered residents’ health and safety.

In November 2000, after months of negotiations between Elgin city officials and HUD, then HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo referred the case to the United States Department of Justice for enforcement. At that time, Secretary Cuomo said, "It’s clear to me that the City of Elgin is either unwilling or unable to reach a negotiated resolution of this dispute."

After two years of renewed settlement negotiations with HUD, the Justice Department, and HOPE, the newly signed agreement will require the city to: 

  • Create a $200,000 victims fund to compensate Latino residents who believe they have been discriminated against in housing code enforcement; 

  • Enter into a four-year, $300,000 contract with HOPE to provide fair housing education, testing, counseling and other services;

  • Revise inspection and warrant procedures, including requirements to have city attorneys review inspection warrants and restrict inspections that are based solely on anonymous complaints;

  • Require inspectors to do the inspections during regular business hours;

  • Require Spanish training for code enforcement officers and translation of some documents into Spanish; and

  • Establish a formal grievance system for complaints about code enforcement. 

Elgin’s Latino population increased 52 percent in the 1990s, from 14,000 to 22,000. Although Latinos only make up eight percent of Elgin’s total population, Latino families received 64 percent of the total number of citations issued by code enforcement officials from 1995 to 1998. Eighty percent of all code citations were issued in predominantly Latino neighborhoods. 

Latino families told HUD investigators about problems with Elgin’s code enforcement officials. Officials would show up for surprise inspections as early as 5:00 a.m. and would enter homes without permission. Families received warnings to reduce the number of occupants in their homes or have them condemned, even if the extra occupants were merely visiting relatives from out of town.

Bernard Kleina, executive director of HOPE, said, "I think it’s going to have a lot of impact, not only in the City of Elgin, but on other cities in Illinois as well."

Elgin Mayor Ed Schock said he was pleased with the settlement. "It needed to be resolved. It needed to be put behind us," he told the Chicago Tribune. "We want to be effective, but we also want to be fair." 

Attorneys Jeffrey Taren and Joanne Kinoy of Kinoy Taren and Garaghty in Chicago represented HOPE and several families in the case.