Justice Department Sues California City, County Over Rental-Housing Ordinance

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A rental housing ordinance designed to target criminal activity has led to a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice charging a violation of the Fair Housing Act, according to a release.

The Justice Department suit alleges the city of Hesperia, California, and the San Bernardino County, California Sheriff’s Department discriminated against African-American and Latino renters in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

The lawsuit alleges that the city, with substantial support from the sheriff’s department, enacted a rental housing ordinance with the intent of addressing what one city councilmember called a “demographical problem” – the city’s increasing African-American and Latino populations – 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 further alleges that the sheriff’s department exercised its substantial discretion in enforcement to target African-American and Latino renters and areas of Hesperia where ethnic minorities made up the majority of the population.

Evictions more likely for minority renters

The Justice Department’s lawsuit is based on an investigation and charge of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban development (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.

Rental-property registration ordinance required property owners to give names of tenants to sheriff

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; 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 lawsuit alleges that the Sheriff’s Department used the ordinance to target African American and Latino renters and tenants living in majority-minority areas of Hesperia. The United States’ complaint 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,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband in the release.

“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.”

Did You Know Fair Housing Laws Apply To Vendors Working At Your Property?

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