In what is being hailed as a prudent move, the Adelanto City Council has rescinded the crime free rental housing program ordinance its predecessor and differently-composed council enacted in 2017.
That action comes three months after the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development filed a complaint against the City of Hesperia and a month after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Hesperia and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department over a similar program the larger city passed in 2015 and put into place on January 1, 2016.
Curiously, the Adelanto City Council, as it was then composed in 2017, signed on to a nearly identical program to what had been initiated in Hesperia the previous year, despite indications that the Hesperia initiative was under challenge. The 2017 Adelanto City Council – which counted Mayor Rich Kerr and councilmen Ed Camargo, John Woodard, Charles Glasper and Jermaine Wright among its members – adopted an ordinance virtually indistinguishable from the Hesperia law.
The Hesperia regulations that went into effect with the dawn of 2016 made it mandatory that all property owners within the city limits of Hesperia participate in the crime free rental housing program.
In essence the program required all rental property owners to evict tenants upon notice by the sheriff’s department that those tenants had engaged in any alleged criminal activity on or near the property. 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. The sheriff’s department also pushed rental owners to carry out evictions of victims of domestic violence, and evictions based on mere allegations and without evidence of criminal activity, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and ultimately the U.S. Justice Department.
In short order, complaints about the intent, purpose and effect of the Hesperia ordinance were being heard and the American Civil Liberties Union and the Victor Valley Family Resource Center filed suit targeting it. In 2017, in response to the American Civil Liberties Union/Victor Valley Family Resource Center’s legal action, effective July 18, 2017 the City of Hesperia dropped the requirement that all rental property owners take part in the program’s regulations and restrictions, making those voluntary. That, however, did not undo those elements of the ordinance that federal officials maintain are unconstitutional and which have allegedly been unevenly applied to target Latino and African-American residents for removal from the community.
The ordinance remained in place throughout 2017, and into 2018 and 2019. During that time, one of the members of the city council, Russ Blewett, who was serving as the council-appointed mayor at the time, died in May 2018. Previously, the then-mayor and one of the councilmen who had voted to put the Crime Free Housing Program into place in 2015, Eric Schmidt and Mike Leonard, had left office. In 2018, another councilman, Paul Russ, was voted out of office. That left last year and at present only one member of the council who had approved the ordinance yet in office, Bill Holland. Still the same, the ordinance remained in force. Moreover, the prime mover in the formulation of program had been Sheriff’s Captain Nils Bentsen, who was serving as Hesperia’s police chief at the time, as Hesperia contracts with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement services. Bentsen has subsequently retired from the sheriff’s department and is now serving in the capacity of Hesperia city manager. No one in Hesperia was disposed toward acknowledging any problem with the program.
In October 2019, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD] lodged a complaint alleging Hesperia’s program violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against African-American and Hispanic residents. When the city did not act with alacrity in response to the HUD complaint, the United States Justice Department on December 2, 2019 filed a civil lawsuit alleging both the City of Hesperia and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department in pursuing the program discriminated against African American and Latino renters in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
The names of both William P. Barr, the U.S. Attorney General, and Eric S. Dreiband, the Assistant U.S. Attorney General, appeared on the suit, as did 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 were 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 scheduled 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 suit cited multiple statements by Hesperia’s council members which, even if they were benignly intended, sounded bad and reflected poorly on the city.
Blewett was quoted as stating the purpose of the ordinance was “to correct a demographical problem” and 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 then-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.” Councilman Bill Holland made what was perhaps the most cringe-worthy remarks, saying, “We are surgically going after those elements that create an inordinate amount of problems in every single neighborhood,” and ‘”You are trying to eliminate them, you are trying to pluck them out and make them go somewhere else.” He said 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 Councilman 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.”
The suit noted 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 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.’”
In the face of the federal government’s allegations, Hesperia city officials say they will fight the lawsuit in court, even if it requires the expenditure of considerable taxpayer dollars to do so.
In an effort to bypass the embarrassment and cost now being borne by Hesperia, Adelanto city officials opted last week, on January 8, to jettison that city’s crime free housing ordinance.
City Attorney Victor Ponto said the city had essentially cloned the ordinance enacted in 2017 from ones existing elsewhere, and he used the term “cookie cutter regulations” in making that description.
After taking up the matter, the council, consisting of Mayor Gabriel Reyes, Councilman Gerardo Hernandez, Councilman Ed Camargo, Councilwoman Joy Jeannette and Councilwoman Stevevonna Evans, voted unanimously to rescind the city’s crime free rental housing program.
Ponto said the city had not been enforcing the ordinance. Nevertheless, he said the city could be sued and dinged for a good amount of money if it left what is deemed an unconstitutional law on its books. “It’s not a matter of if we’re going to get sued,” Ponto said. “It’s when.”
Ponto’s prediction was based on the presence of lawyers from the Victor Valley Family Resource Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California being present at the January 8 meeting. Both of those groups had been instrumental in the civil action that resulted in Hesperia’s 2017 move to make its crime free housing program voluntary. As a result, the Victor Valley Family Resource Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California collected $487,000 in legal fees from Hesperia.
Some individuals, including Blacks and Latinos, while acknowledging that officials had perhaps been a bit heavy-handed in enforcing the program in Hesperia, said that it nevertheless had a salubrious impact in reducing criminal activity in certain neighborhoods. Like Hesperia, where the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department is that city’s police department, Adelanto also has sheriff’s department deputies and higher ranking officers handling its law enforcement duties under contract.