Unrepentantly, Hesperia Brokers An End To U.S. Attorney’s Discriminatory Housing Lawsuit

The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday announced it had secured a landmark agreement resolving a race and national origin discrimination lawsuit against the City of Hesperia and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department that had drug on in federal court for three years.
Despite the apparent settlement, city officials and the city’s legal team are putting out that the city engaged in no untoward action when it adopted its “crime-free” rental housing program in November 2015 and then vigorously enforced it while it was fully in effect from January 1, 2016 until July 18, 2017.
In its lawsuit, the U.S. Attorney’s Office alleged the housing program was a thinly-veiled effort to prevent the relocation of African Americans and Latinos from the impoverished neighborhoods of Los Angeles County to Hesperia, in what was a clear and demonstrable pattern or practice of discrimination.
The City of Hesperia’s “Crime Free Rental Housing Ordinance” 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 by the U.S. Attorney’s Office involved a who’s who of the nation’s highest prosecutors, including then-U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr; then-Assistant U.S. Attorney General Eric S. Dreiband; Sameena Shina Majeed, the chief of the office’s housing and civil enforcement section; the section’s deputy chief, R. Tamar Hagler; Nicola T. Hanna, then the United States Attorney in Los Angeles; 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., was designated as the trial attorney on the case.According to the lawsuit, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and Nils Bentsen, who was then the Hesperia Sheriff’s Station commander, played key roles in creating the program and misusing its parameters, exercising substantial discretion in the enforcement of the ordinance that informed the program to target African American and Latino renters and majority-minority areas of Hesperia.
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.”
According to the lawsuit, “The ordinance applied exclusively to rental properties. 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, 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.” Then-Mayor Eric Schmidt, said, “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 “We 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. 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.’”
According to Hesperia’s City Manager at the time, Mike Podegracz, Captain Bentsen was the “driving force” behind the ordinance. Some six months before the ordinance’s enactment, Bentsen floated the concept of having the city “establish a mandatory crime free rental program.” He cited data that he claimed showed a nexus between rental properties and increased crime. Bentsen stated that in 2014 one-third of 911 calls in the city came from rental properties. He did not, however, exclude from that data those 911 calls that were unrelated to criminal activity. Bentsen also referenced 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 asserted that nine of the ten homicides in Hesperia from 2012 through 2014 occurred at rental properties.
According to the federal lawsuit, Bentsen assured the city council that “[u]nder Crime Free, you don’t have to be convicted of a crime’ to be evicted.”
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the way in which the city applied the ordinance “had real and devastating impacts on families across the City of Hesperia. For example, a Black woman living in Hesperia called the police repeatedly to come to her home because she did not feel safe with her boyfriend. The sheriff’s department notified her landlord about the numerous domestic disturbance calls and threatened the landlord with a misdemeanor. The landlord then forced the woman and her children out of their home. With nowhere to go, the family moved into a motel and attempted to rent another home in Hesperia, but the applications were repeatedly denied. Unable to rent another home for her family in Hesperia, she was forced to uproot her life, leave a house full of furniture behind, and move across the country.”
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, “The program also impacted a Latina woman living in Hesperia who called the police to get assistance for her boyfriend, who was experiencing a mental health crisis at her home. When the sheriff’s department arrived before the paramedics, her boyfriend was arrested. The woman then received a notice to vacate based on the supposed violation of the ordinance, and she was forced to temporarily move into a motel.”
In another case, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, “One Black family was torn apart after a mother’s call to the police for help got them kicked out of their home and placed on the violators list, making it impossible to find another rental in Hesperia. The parents moved away and made the impossible decision to leave their teenage daughter behind to finish high school.”
Under the consent order by which the case was resolved short of going to trial, Hesperia had already mitigated a portion of the harm inflicted upon the community by the program by repealing the “crime-free” ordinance, modifying its rental housing business license ordinance, and reducing the fees associated with rental housing business licenses. The sheriff’s department had also made partial amends by agreeing to stop enforcement of Hesperia’s “crime-free” program.
Under the proposed consent order, which was filed on Wednesday but still must be approved by a federal judge, the City of Hesperia will spend $950,000 and commit to significant injunctive relief to remedy the effects of the “crime-free” and business license programs, including: a settlement fund of $670,000 to compensate individuals harmed by the program; the payment of $100,000 in civil penalties; funding of $95,000 for affirmative marketing to promote fair housing in Hesperia; funding of $85,000 for partnerships with community-based organizations; notifications to property managers, landlords, and owners of the changes to the ordinances and fee schedule; submission of certain policies, procedures and ordinances for the United States’ review and approval prior to adoption; adoption of non-discrimination policies and complaint procedures; designation of civil rights coordinators; anti-discrimination training; a fair housing needs assessment; and regular reporting to the court and the United States Attorney’s Office during the order’s five-year term.
The public announcement was made by the U.S, Attorney’s Office. The City of Hesperia made no effort to publicize what had occurred.
Repeated efforts by the Sentinel to obtain a statement from Bentsen, who in January will have completed his sixth year as city manager, were unsuccessful.
In a copyrighted story authored by Rene Ray De La Cruz which appeared in the Victorville Daily Press on Thursday, December 15, an attorney who represented Hesperia in its defense of the lawsuit brought against it by the U.S. Attorney’s Office sounded anything but contrite in describing the city’s acceptance of the consent order.
J. Pat Ferraris, an attorney with the law firm of Honan, Stone & Rossi, said, essentially, that the city had knuckled under because of the greater authority, deeper pockets and advantage that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had in federal court and not because the city had engaged in any wrongdoing or because it had violated anyone’s rights.
The city caving in and accepting the consent degree was not an admission of liability, Ferraris told De La Cruz. According to the Daily Press article, the city agreed to the terms of the consent order to avoid the cost of trial and the risk of sustaining even greater costs if the matter were to be adjudicated in the plaintiff’s favor. De La Cruz quoted Ferraris as saying “[T]he city continues to vehemently deny all allegations contained within the complaint filed by the Department of Justice” and that “the resolution of this matter by the city was based solely on a sound financial decision on behalf of the citizens of the city.”

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