The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed a lawsuit against the city of Hesperia and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department alleging discrimination against black and Latino renters. The suit, filed earlier this month, takes aim at a 2016 Hesperia rental ordinance that requires landlords to evict tenants who had allegedly committed crimes on or near their property.
Making matters more troublesome is that the housing law was passed at a time when Hesperia, a Mojave Desert city of just under 100,000 people located 35 miles north of San Bernardino, saw it’s Latino and African-American populations growing. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Latinos living in Hesperia rose 140 percent, and the number of African-Americans by 103 percent, according to Census Bureau data.
The housing law, called the “Crime Free Rental Housing Program” led to the eviction of countless families, including children, for alleged criminal activity that included one tenant or even some non-tenants. This was in addition to the eviction of family members who had reported domestic violence to the police. The housing act even involved allegations from authorities of criminal activity even if the individual wasn’t arrested, charged or convicted.
According to federal authorities, city councilmembers’ statements in creating the controversial ordinance show that it was designed to reverse “demographic” changes in Hesperia.
The suit, alleges that the housing law was put in place for one primary reason, to drive minorities out of the city of Hesperia. The DOJ is seeking to stop future similarly discriminatory housing laws and for financial compensation for those tenants that were affected by the ordinance. The housing law was put in effect from Jan. 1, 2016 to July 18, 2017.
The DOJ says that the ordinance violated the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability. With the city’s sheriff’s department having determination in which tenants would be evicted, there was an instance when an older Latino couple was removed due to their adult son, who did not live with them, being arrested, the suit said.
When the measure was initially being drafted, Hesperia Mayor Eric Schmidt made comments about the number of renters that were coming into the city from parts of L.A. County that were known for having large minority populations. According to prosecutors, Schmidt allegedly said that groups left 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.”
Another questionable comment came from city councilmember Russ Blewett who allegedly said that Hesperia needed to “improve our demographic,” and that he wanted “those kind of people” that the ordinance would particularly 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 suit.
“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,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in the press release. “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.”
As of now, the city of Hesperia has denied any and all wrongdoing in regard to the DOJ lawsuit.
Rachel Molina, a spokeswoman for the City of Hesperia, told the Victorville Daily Press that the information presented in the DOJ lawsuit is “factually incorrect and grossly misleading.”
“First and foremost, I would like to say that Hesperia is a very diverse community,” Molina said. “We love and embrace diversity in Hesperia. At no time did the City’s crime-free ordinance discriminate against residents of any ethnicity. There are crime-free programs across the United States aimed at providing residents with safer communities — in the recent past HUD supported such programs.”
Before the DOJ filed its own lawsuit, the ACLU took legal action two years ago against the city on similar premises of housing discrimination.
This isn’t the first time the city and it’s sheriff’s department have faced legal action over the ordinance. Back in 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California filed a suit on the claim that the housing law restricted housing and services for those individuals who had criminal records. In retaliation, Hesperia made adjustments to the law to make the program voluntary for landlords. Just last year, the city agreed to settle with the ACLU lawsuit for $485,000 dollars.
That lawsuit was filed on behalf of Sharon Green, who leads the Victor Valley Family Resource Center, a housing nonprofit organization. Green told the LA Times that the DOJ suit is important in regards to other cities that might be considering similar discriminatory housing laws.
The DOJ suit will “send a strong message to cities around the country that they cannot discriminate. Our homeless numbers are far too large and there are far too many obstacles to housing already to be dealing with this kind of foolishness.”