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Monday, December 2, 2019

Justice Department Sues City of Hesperia, California and San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department for Discriminating Against African American and Latino Renters Through the Enactment and Enforcement of a Rental Ordinance

The Justice Department today announced it has filed a lawsuit alleging that the City of Hesperia, California, and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department in California discriminated against African American and Latino renters in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California 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” – the City’s increasing African American and Latino population – 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 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.

“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.”

“Our office is committed to defending the civil rights of everyone,” said Nick Hanna, the United States Attorney for the Central District of California. “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.”

“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 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.

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. City officials expressed a desire for the ordinance to drive supposed newcomers “the hell out of our town.” The City enacted the ordinance despite civil-rights related objections to many of its provisions from various segments of the community.

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, and 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.   

Fighting illegal housing discrimination is a top priority of the Justice Department. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability. More information about the Civil Rights Division and the laws it enforces is available at www.justice.gov/crt. More information about the Civil Rights Section, Civil Division of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California is available at https://www.justice.gov/usao-cdca/civil-division/civil-rights.

Individuals who believe that they may have been victims of housing discrimination can call the Justice Department at 1-800-896-7743 (press 1 to continue in English and select mailbox option 4; press 2 to continue in Spanish and select mailbox option 4), email the Justice Department at fairhousing@usdoj.gov, or contact HUD at 1-800-669-9777. Individuals can also file a complaint about housing discrimination or other civil rights violations with the Civil Rights Section, Civil Division of the United States Attorney’s Office by calling (213) 894-2879, emailing USACAC.CV-CivilRights@usdoj.gov, or completing and submitting this form.

Updated December 2, 2019