Justice Department Alleges Hesperia Housing Discrimination Against Blacks & Latinos

The United States Justice Department on Monday filed a lawsuit alleging both the City of Hesperia and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department in pursuing a municipal program aimed at reducing crime discriminated against African American and Latino renters in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
The federal lawsuit alleges 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,” which was defined as the city’s increasing African American and Latino population. The ordinance resulted in the evictions of numerous African American and Latino renters, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
The City of Hesperia’s “Crime Free Rental Housing Ordinance,” which was in effect between January 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 majority-minority areas of Hesperia. Although the ordinance purported to target “criminal activity,” the sheriff’s department notified landlords to begin evictions of entire families – including children – for conduct involving one tenant or even non-tenants, evictions of victims of domestic violence, and evictions based on mere allegations and without evidence of criminal activity, according to the civil complaint.
“Our office is committed to defending the civil rights of everyone,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna. “Protecting the public is one of the most important duties of local governments and police departments, and the public entrusts them with enormous power to carry out that duty. We will not allow them to abuse that power by depriving people of their rights.”
“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. “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, Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). “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.”
The Justice Department’s lawsuit is based on an investigation and charge of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 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 areas of the city where both black and Hispanic populations predominated. According to the complaint, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 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 what the federal government refers to as “majority-minority Census blocks,” meaning districts in which white residents are outnumbered by Latinos and Negroes. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development came to a determination 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 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 U.S. Attorney’s Office. City officials expressed a desire for the ordinance to drive supposed newcomers “the hell out of our town,” according to one statement the suit attributed to a councilmember. The city enacted the ordinance despite civil rights-related objections to many of its provisions from various segments of the community, the federal government maintains.
The names of both William P. Barr, the U.S. Attorney General, and Eric S. Dreiband, the Assistant U.S. Attorney General, appear on the suit, as does that of Sameena Shina Majeed, the chief of the office’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section, and the section’s deputy chief, R. Tamar Hagler.  Also listed as representing the government are Nicola T. Hanna, the United States Attorney in Los Angeles, and David M. Harris, the chief of the civil division in Los Angeles, Karen P. Ruckert, the chief of the Los Angeles Office’s Civil Rights Section, and Matthew Nickell, the head of the civil division within the Los Angeles office’s Civil Rights Section.
Megan K. Whyte De Vasquez, who is a member of the bar in Washington, D.C. is to be the trial attorney.
According to the suit, “The Sheriff’s Department, which the city tasked with enforcing the ordinance, …demanded evictions of entire families for conduct involving one tenant or even guests or estranged family members, evictions of victims of domestic violence, and evictions in the absence of concrete evidence of criminal activity. It also threatened and took action against housing providers that failed to evict tenants under the ordinance’s strictures. Defendants enacted and enforced the ordinance with the intent and effect of disproportionately impacting African American and Latino renters.”
The suit states “The city—with substantial support from the sheriff’s department—enacted the mandatory eviction ordinance to address a perceived ‘demographical problem’: the growing population of African American and Latino renters in Hesperia. The African American and Latino population in Hesperia grew rapidly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries while the percentage of non-Hispanic white residents declined. In 1990, non-Hispanic white residents were 76.8 percent of the city’s population, but by 2000, this had dropped to 62.4 percent. By 2010, Hesperia’s non-Hispanic white population was 41.1 percent. According to Census Bureau estimates, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites in Hesperia had further declined to 35.8 percent by 2016. The number of Latino residents in Hesperia rose by 140 percent between 2000 and 2010, from 18,400 to 44,091. The number of African American residents rose by 103 percent during the same period, from 2,388 to 4,853. According to the 2010 Census, the city was 5.4 percent African American and 48.9 percent Latino.”
The lawsuit continues, “On November 17, 2015, Hesperia enacted ordinance no. 2015-12, entitled ‘An Ordinance of the City Council of the City of Hesperia, California, Requiring the Registration and Regulation of Housing Rental Businesses for Crime Free Rental Housing.’ The ordinance went into effect on January 1, 2016, and remained in effect until on or about July 18, 2017. The ordinance applied exclusively to rental properties. It contained four core requirements relevant to the United States’ claims. First, it required all owners of rental property in the city to register their properties and pay an annual fee, and it imposed fines for failure to register those properties. Under the city fee schedule for the ordinance, an owner had to pay a $350 fine for failing to register a single-family rental property, and a fine of $50 per unit for failing to register a multifamily property. The ordinance also made the failure to register or to comply with the provisions of the ordinance a misdemeanor. Second, it required owners to submit the names of all adult tenancy applicants to the sheriff’s department for a background screening. In addition, it required owners to use a commercially available service to conduct a criminal background check of their tenants, at the owners’ expense. The city fee schedule for the ordinance imposed a $250 fine for an owner’s failure to screen a tenant or applicant. Third, it required all owners to incorporate a ‘crime free lease addendum’ into all new and renewed residential leases. The addendum mandated that if any occupant, guest, or ‘other person under the [occupant’s] control’ engaged in a single instance of any criminal activity ‘on or near’ the property or, in the case of drug crimes, ‘at any location,’ this ‘w[ould] result in a three-day notice to quit.’ Neither the ordinance nor the addendum required a conviction or other criminal disposition, or even an arrest, to trigger the three-day notice. The addendum allowed landlords to serve the three-day notice requiring that ‘every member of . . . [the] household . . . shall vacate the premises within three days.’ The city fee schedule for the ordinance imposed a $500 fine on owners for failure to initiate an eviction in accordance with the addendum, as well as a $250 fine for failure to incorporate the addendum in a lease. Fourth, the ordinance required all rental properties in the city to undergo annual police inspections for items related to actual or potential criminal activity, for example, whether poor lighting or landscaping offered places for individuals to hide. The city fee schedule for the ordinance provided a $100 fee for each reinspection and a $400 fine for failing to make any required corrections. The city amended the ordinance as of July 18, 2017, during the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s investigation. The language of the ordinance changed, but the 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 current city fee schedule provides for many of the same fines under the amended ordinance as it did under the original ordinance.”
The suit states, “The ordinance’s stated rationale was a purported connection between rental properties and increased ‘illegal activity’ and ‘law enforcement calls for service.’ However, statements by city and sheriff’s department officials leading up to the enactment of the ordinance belie this rationale. Instead, statements by city and sheriff’s department officials indicate that the ordinance was enacted with discriminatory intent and with the purpose of evicting and deterring African American and Latino renters from living in Hesperia.
“In city council hearings prior to the ordinance’s enactment, the mayor, mayor pro tem, and other city councilmembers made numerous statements that demonstrate the city enacted the ordinance to reverse perceived ‘demographic’ changes in Hesperia. During hearings, city officials focused on the places from which renters had moved when discussing the need to expel the perceived newcomers from Hesperia. Although approximately three-quarters of new Hesperia residents between 2012 and 2016 moved there from other parts of San Bernardino County, city councilmembers focused many of their statements on purported newcomers from Los Angeles County, whose population in 2016 was estimated to be only 26.7 percent non-Hispanic white. City Councilmember Russ Blewett stated the purpose of the ordinance was ‘to correct a demographical problem.’ He stated he ‘could care less’ that landlords and organizations including ‘the Apartment House Association, and the Building Industry, and the Board of Realtors’ disagreed with him about the ordinance, and stated that the city needed to ‘improve our demographic.’ Blewett also stated that ‘those kind of people’ the ordinance would target were ‘no addition and of no value to this community, period,’ and that he wanted to ‘get them the hell out of our town,’ adding ‘I want their butt kicked out of this community as fast as I can possibly humanly get it done.’ The mayor, Eric Schmidt, stated ‘I can’t get over the fact that we’re allowing . . . people from LA County’ to ‘mov[e] into our neighborhoods because it’s a cheap place to live and it’s a place to hide.’ He also stated that ‘the people that aggravate us aren’t from here,’ and that they ‘come from somewhere else with their tainted history.’ Mayor Pro Tem Bill Holland stated ‘[w]e are surgically going after those elements that create an inordinate amount of problems in every single neighborhood,’ and ‘[y]ou are trying to eliminate them, you are trying to pluck them out and make them go somewhere else.’ He also stated that the ordinance’s purpose was to get each landlord ‘to rid his rental . . . of that blight,’ similar to ‘call[ing] an exterminator out to kill roaches, same difference.’ City Councilmember Mike Leonard stated that ‘we’ve had a lot of people from over the hill move up here that are not very friendly people,’ and ‘we need to work on getting them out of here.’ He also stated ‘[w]e need to get [the ordinance] going because we are falling further and further behind on our ability to cut down some of our problem areas.’ During a hearing on the proposed ordinance, Mayor Schmidt asked a property manager what percentage of his renters came from outside San Bernardino County. The property manager testified that people were moving from specific parts of Los Angeles County—all of which were well known as having significant minority populations, including the ‘323 area code’ (which is concentrated in central Los Angeles city) and the cities of Compton, Inglewood, Long Beach, and Los Angeles. According to Census estimates, in 2016 the non-Hispanic white population in Compton was 1.1 percent; in Inglewood, it was 3.7 percent; in Long Beach, it was 27.7 percent; and in Los Angeles, it was 28.5 percent.”
The suit notes that “Captain Nils Bentsen from the sheriff’s department, who later became Hesperia’s city manager, was present at the hearings during which the statements described were made. Captain Bentsen and the city councilmembers described Hesperia’s renters—a group in which African American and Latino individuals are overrepresented in comparison to their share of homeowners—as dangerous because they were ‘antisocial’ and ‘victimized’ homeowners. According to 2016 Census estimates, 58 percent of renter households in Hesperia were African American or Latino, compared to just 44 percent of homeowner households. Captain Bentsen and the city councilmembers also disparaged Hesperia’s Housing Choice (‘Section 8’) Voucher holders—three-quarters of whom were African American or Latino. For example, Councilmember Leonard stated the ordinance would ‘straighten . . . out’ Hesperia’s ‘issues with a lot of Section 8 housing,’ and told the other councilmembers “[y]ou just pay more taxes to support these people that are sucking up the Section 8 housing,’ and added ‘[w]e need to get them out.’ Captain Bentsen compared the ordinance to his previous efforts evicting people in ‘a Section 8 house’ where ‘it took us years to . . . find some criminal charges [and] arrest the people.’ The sheriff’s department  provided significant support and resources to help the city create and prepare to implement the ordinance before it was enacted. According to Hesperia’s City Manager at the time, Mike Podegracz, Captain Bentsen was the ‘driving force’ behind the ordinance. Bentsen testified in uniform before the city council over six months before the ordinance’s enactment ‘to see if the council [was] willing to establish a mandatory [crime free rental] program.’ In his testimony, he cited data that he claimed showed a nexus between rental properties and increased crime. However, these data were misleading and incomplete, and he provided no testimony demonstrating that any of the data points were appropriate measures of crime rates. First, Bentsen claimed that in 2014 one-third of 911 calls in the city came from rental properties. But he failed to exclude from his data those 911 calls that were unrelated to criminal activity, and did not provide any additional data about the remaining 911 calls to enable the decision makers to determine whether the proportion of 911 calls coming from rental properties was disproportionate to the percentage of occupied housing units that were rental units (which was approximately 37 percent in 2014), and if so, by how much. Second, Bentsen cited the proportion of ‘multiple response’ citations that the sheriff’s department issued at rental properties. According to Bentsen, the sheriff’s department issued ‘multiple response’ forms when its officers had responded multiple times to a particular residence, including for loud music. Although Bentsen claimed that 80 percent of ‘multiple responses’ from law enforcement were for rental properties, he omitted from his count those ‘multiple responses’ involving alarm calls, which typically occurred at homes. Bentsen also did not testify about the circumstances in which the sheriff’s department issued ‘multiple response’ forms. Finally, Bentsen asserted that nine of the ten homicides in Hesperia from 2012 through 2014 occurred at rental properties. He presented no statistics for other types of crime, however, claiming that it would be ‘very difficult’ and take ‘a lot of time’ to compile the data necessary to determine whether crime rates for any other offenses vary depending on whether a property is owner- or renter-occupied. He asserted that he presented only data on homicides because that information ‘was an easier one for me to pull up because we don’t have that many homicides, thank God.’”
The suit states “Captain Bentsen testified to the city council that, ‘[u]nder Crime Free, you don’t have to be convicted of a crime’ to be evicted.’ Captain Bentsen testified to the city council that the ordinance was designed to be ‘lighter on the requirements and more heavy on the enforcement.’ The city tasked its ‘police department’ and ‘chief of police’—i.e., the sheriff’s department and a designated sheriff’s captain—with enforcing the ordinance. Enforcement was specifically handled by a special crime free housing team within the sheriff’s department comprising a deputy, a service specialist, and an office specialist. The ordinance made the sheriff’s department the only entity with discretion to decide whether the ordinance required an eviction. It made the sheriff’s department responsible for maintaining a ‘crime free’ database and for sending crime notifications to property owners. If the sheriff’s department staff sent a crime notification to owners about their property, the ordinance mandated that the owners begin an eviction process. The sheriff’s department exercised discretion in all aspects of enforcing the ordinance. Neither the ordinance nor the city provided much guidance to the sheriff’s department regarding enforcement. The ordinance explicitly gave ‘discretion’ to the ‘chief of police’—i.e., sheriff’s department staff—to determine whether and what ‘evidence and documents’ would be sent to housing providers notifying them to evict a tenant. Sheriff’s department staff stated that the ordinance was applied on a ‘case-by-case basis of course’ and that they ‘handl[ed] each situation differently’ and applied ‘more of a ‘spirit of the law determination’ than a fixed set of rules.”
According to the suit, “Under the ordinance, the sheriff’s department routinely determined that tenants should be evicted despite the absence of any conviction or court judgment. Sheriff’s department staff stated that ‘a copy of the call [to 911] for service,’ a ‘negative law enforcement action [as opposed to a] conviction of a crime,’ or a ‘multiple response citation,’ which could be issued if the sheriff’s department responded to a property multiple times for ‘noise disturbances’ such as ‘loud music,’ could all trigger eviction.  Even conduct that was legal under California state law could justify an eviction. Sheriff’s department staff explained to a housing provider, ‘even if your tenant has a [medical] marijuana card . . . they will be in violation of the Crime Free Program [even though] as the police, we can’t arrest someone for smoking marijuana who has a card.’ Sheriff’s department staff pressured property owners to ensure evictions took place and dedicated or offered to dedicate significant attention and resources to assist. The Sheriff’s department also encouraged owners to use extra-judicial tactics to eject tenants from their homes. Sheriff’s department staff told a housing provider to use ‘whatever method fits the situation’ to evict tenants, ‘as long as [the tenants] leave.’ Sheriff’s department staff encouraged the use of threats of eviction to get tenants to vacate through a ‘voluntary move,’ ‘especially after explaining that an official eviction could have a negative impact on their credit.’  The sheriff’s department encouraged housing providers to evict entire households when one member of the household engaged in purported criminal activity.   For example, a staff member told a housing provider, ‘[n]ot sure which one [of your tenants] was arrested, but under the new city ordinance any arrest on the premises means the whole house is subject to eviction anyway.’ Sheriff’s department staff also demanded the eviction of an elderly Latino couple who lived in a majority-minority Census block after their adult son, who did not live with them, was arrested. The sheriff’s department also notified landlords to begin evictions of victims of domestic violence even though the ordinance contained language purporting to protect them. For example, one woman was evicted together with her three children from a majority-minority Census block after she called 911 to report that her husband was beating her with a television cable. Sheriff’s department staff explained to another landlord that, under the ordinance, the sheriff’s department ‘would be notifying you to begin eviction on the entire household’ of a domestic violence victim ‘if the victim ends up allowing [the abuser] back in, and the problems persist.’ Also, the sheriff’s department told the landlord of an African American domestic violence victim that the victim ‘is allowing the problem to continue,’ and that the landlord could ‘warn [her] that if she allows [her husband] back in, and the problem persists, she would be subject to eviction.’  Residents reported to the Department of Housing and Urban Development that they were scared to call the police due to the fear of eviction. Evicting crime victims who called 911 undercuts defendants’ assertion that a principal purpose of the ordinance was to reduce crime and make neighborhoods safer. Defendants retaliated against housing providers that hesitated to evict tenants as demanded by the sheriff’s department. If owners did not begin evictions, the sheriff’s department threatened them with fines. When a property management company raised concern about the ordinance’s legality, the sheriff’s department emailed the company’s clients to inform them the company was noncompliant with the ordinance, and thus the city could fine the clients.”
The sheriff’s department’s own internal documentation bears out that the housing discrimination took place, according to the lawsuit.
The suit states “The city failed to exercise meaningful oversight over the sheriff’s department in its enforcement of the ordinance.  The sheriff’s department tracked the progress of the eviction campaign it directed with a document listing more than 250 people it had targeted for eviction and the status of their housing. During its investigation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development obtained an ‘eviction tracking spreadsheet’ from the sheriff’s department purporting to list those residents and households that the sheriff’s department had targeted for eviction in 2016 and the status of their housing. Based on an analysis of the residents on the spreadsheet whose race and national origin could be identified, the Department of Housing and Urban Development determined that African American and Latino renters were significantly more likely to be evicted under the ordinance than non-Hispanic white renters. Specifically, the Department of Housing and Urban Development 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.  The sheriff’s department’s data further show that 96.3 percent of individuals and 96.9 percent of households evicted under the ordinance had been evicted from majority-minority Census blocks, even though only 79 percent of rental households in Hesperia are located in majority-minority Census blocks.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development further determined from the sheriff’s department data that of the Census blocks in Hesperia with at least 25 percent renters and at least four rental units, 24 percent were majority-white, but only 2.5 percent of evictions occurred in those blocks.  Moreover, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s analysis showed that the rate of evictions under the ordinance increased in relation to the percentage of minorities residing in the Census block. The higher the concentration of minority population in an area, the more likely households in that neighborhood were to be evicted under the ordinance.”
City officials strongly denied a previous report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development alleging housing discrimination in Hesperia and they were equally adamant in their denials in the face of the U.S. Justice Department’s filing of the lawsuit.
“The information in the U.S. Department of Justice press release is factually incorrect and grossly misleading,” Rachel Molina, an assistant to City Manager Nils Bentsen and the city’s spokeswoman, said. “At no time did the city’s crime-free ordinance discriminate against residents of any ethnicity.”
Furthermore, according to Molina, “There are crime free programs across the United States aimed at providing residents with safer communities. In the recent past the Department of Housing and Urban Development supported such programs.
Molina continued, “One of the best things about Hesperia is its diversity. The city loves and embraces its diverse community.”
She asserted, “The city will defend against the false allegations in this lawsuit.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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