Hesperia, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Officials Used Housing Law to Force Out Black and Latino Residents: Federal Suit

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A federal lawsuit filed Monday accuses the city of Hesperia and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department of enforcing an illegal and discriminatory housing law designed to push black and Latino renters out of town.

The complaint centers on Hesperia’s Crime Free Rental Housing ordinance that went into effect Jan. 1, 2016. It was designed to address what one city councilmember called a “demographical problem:” an increasing number of minority residents who fled from higher rents in Los Angeles County, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California said in a news release.

Under the measure, the Sheriff’s Department would tell landlords that tenants were suspected of being involved in criminal activity on or near the property, and the landlords were required to evict the residents. A three-day eviction notice could be triggered without a conviction or even an arrest, prosecutors said.

The program also mandated criminal background checks for all tenants. Federal authorities say sheriff’s staff described flagged tenants as “potential future violators” and discouraged landlords from renting to them, even though screening reports generally did not say why an applicant was flagged.

Finally, the law required deputies inspect rental properties annually to determine if poor lighting or landscaping created places to hide.

The city’s website says the ordinance is geared toward “keeping illegal activity out of our community and creating a safer environment.”

Deputies exercised “substantial discretion” in targeting majority-minority neighborhoods with “harsh and arbitrary” enforcement, the complaint alleges.

An investigation by the Department of Housing and Urban Development found black renters were nearly four times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be evicted under the ordinance, while Latino renters were 29% more likely than whites. And 96% of those targeted for eviction in 2016 lived in majority-minority census blocks, officials said.

People were routinely forced out of their homes based on mere allegations with no evidence, investigators said. Even conduct that was perfectly legal — such as smoking marijuana with a medical card — could result in an eviction, sheriff’s staff is accused of telling a property manager.

Federal prosecutors say suspected criminals weren’t the only ones targeted. Deputies demanded the eviction of an older Latino couple after the arrest of their adult son, who didn’t live with them, according to the lawsuit.

And despite the purported goal of cutting down on crime, the law was allegedly used to target victims. The complaint states a mother and her three children were forced from their home after the woman called 911 to report her husband was beating her with a television cable.

Residents told HUD the threat of eviction made them scared to call police.

City councilmembers’ statements in drafting the ordinance reveal it was designed to reverse “demographic” changes, federal authorities allege. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Latinos living in Hesperia rose 140%, and the number of African Americans by 103%, according to the Census Bureau.

Although data shows about three-quarters of people moving into Hesperia between 2012 and 2016 came from other parts of San Bernardino County, councilmembers focused on people coming from Los Angeles County, whose population at the time was estimated to be only 26.7% white, the lawsuit states.

During one hearing, Hesperia Mayor Eric Schmidt questioned a property manager on how many renters came from outside San Bernardino County. The manager testified people were moving from parts of L.A. County known for having large minority populations, including the “323 area code,” prosecutors said.

Schmidt is accused of saying people were coming from L.A. County “because it’s a cheap place to live and it’s a place to hide,” and that “the people that aggravate us aren’t from here,” they “come from somewhere else with their tainted history.”

Councilmember Russ Blewett allegedly stated the city needed to “improve our demographic,” and that he wanted “those kind of people” the ordinance would target to get “the hell out of our town.”

“I want their butt kicked out of this community as fast as I can possibly humanly get it done,” Blewett said, according to the complaint.

Bill Holland, the city’s mayor pro tem, allegedly said the move was designed to “surgically” target problem elements and eliminate “blight,” similar to “call(ing) an exterminator out to kill roaches.”

The measure was passed despite various groups voicing civil-rights objections. When a fair housing organization sent the council a letter expressing its concerns, Blewett allegedly stated in response, “I don’t care what fair housing says about” the people being targeted.

In July 2017, the city amended it to make compliance voluntary after being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Victorville Daily Press reported.

According to the complaint, though the ordinance’s language changed, “components of the crime-free rental housing program implemented under the original ordinance remain largely the same, although certain provisions are no longer mandatory.”

The Fair Housing Act bans housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin and disability.

Prosecutors say the result of city and sheriff’s officials’ conduct was that “many African American and Latino renters were unable to live in Hesperia because of their race or national origin.”

Anyone who believes they may have been victim of housing discrimination can call the Justice Department at 800-896-7743, email fairhousing@usdoj.gov, or contact HUD at 800-669-9777. Individuals can also file a complaint about housing discrimination or other civil rights violations with the U.S. Attorney’s Office by calling 213-894-2879, emailing USACAC.CV-CivilRights@usdoj.gov or completing and submitting this form.

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