DOJ: Local Crime-Free Rental Ordinance Discriminates Against Black and Latino Renters

In December 2019, the Justice Department announced it has filed a lawsuit alleging that the City of Hesperia, Calif., and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department discriminated against African-American and Latino renters in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

The lawsuit claims that the city, with substantial support from the sheriff’s department, enacted a rental ordinance with the intent of addressing what one city councilmember called a “demographical problem”—the city’s increasing African-American and Latino population—resulting in the evictions of numerous African-American and Latino renters. The ordinance, which was in effect between Jan. 1, 2016, and its amendment on July 18, 2017, required all rental property owners to evict tenants upon notice by the sheriff’s department that the tenants had engaged in any alleged criminal activity on or near the property.

The complaint also alleged that the sheriff’s department exercised its substantial discretion in enforcement to target African-American and Latino renters and majority-minority areas of Hesperia. Although the ordinance purported to target “criminal activity,” the sheriff’s department notified landlords to begin evictions of: (1) entire families, including children, for conduct involving one tenant or even non-tenants; (2) victims of domestic violence; and (3) tenants based on mere allegations and without evidence of criminal activity.

DOJ says that the lawsuit is based on an investigation and charge of discrimination by HUD, which found that African-American and Latino renters were significantly more likely to be evicted under the ordinance than white renters, and that evictions disproportionately occurred in majority-minority parts of Hesperia. According to the complaint, HUD determined that African-American renters were almost four times as likely as non-Hispanic white renters to be evicted because of the ordinance, and Latino renters were 29 percent more likely than non-Hispanic white renters to be evicted. Sheriff’s department data showed that 96 percent of the people the sheriff’s department targeted for eviction under the ordinance in 2016 had lived in majority-minority census blocks. HUD determined that reasonable cause existed to believe the city and county engaged in illegal discriminatory housing practices.

The lawsuit alleges that city officials enacted the ordinance to drive African-American and Latino renters out of Hesperia. During city council hearings, city officials and others allegedly made numerous statements that demonstrate the city enacted the ordinance to reverse “demographic” changes in Hesperia, including focusing on purported newcomers from predominantly minority Los Angeles County. According to the complaint, city officials expressed a desire for the ordinance to drive supposed newcomers “the hell out of our town.” Allegedly, the city enacted the ordinance despite civil-rights related objections to many of its provisions from various segments of the community.

The complaint alleges that, in addition to the eviction mandate, the ordinance required all rental property owners to register their properties and pay an annual fee; submit the names of all adult tenancy applicants to the sheriff’s department for a background screening, and use a commercially available service to conduct at their own expense a criminal background check of their tenants; and subject their rental properties to annual inspections by police. Failure to comply subjected owners to fines.

The Justice Department also alleges that, in enforcing the ordinance, the sheriff’s department notified landlords to begin evictions of entire households for the conduct of a single individual, including in cases where tenants were victims of domestic violence. Those evicted included young children who were not accused of any wrongdoing.  

“The Fair Housing Act prohibits local governments from enacting ordinances intended to push out African-American and Latino renters because of their race and national origin, or from enforcing their ordinances in a discriminatory manner,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a statement. “The United States Department of Justice will continue zealously to enforce the Fair Housing Act against anyone and any organization or institution that violates the law’s protections against race, national origin, and other forms of unlawful discrimination.”

“Individuals and families have a right to live where they choose, regardless of their race or national origin,” said Anna María Farías, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. “HUD applauds today’s action and will continue to work with the Justice Department to address policies and practices that violate this nation’s fair housing laws.”