City settles discrimination lawsuit from Black and Latino renters in California

(WASHINGTON) — The Justice Department announced a landmark civil rights settlement Wednesday with the city of Hesperia, California, and its sheriff’s department over allegations they illegally discriminated against Black and Latino renters.

Under the terms of the settlement, which requires final sign off from a federal judge, the city and sheriff’s department must pay nearly $1 million and fully repeal a crime-free housing ordinance that mandates landlords to evict those who police reported had been involved in criminal activity, even if the offense was minor or if it didn’t result in formal charges, an arrest or conviction.

An analysis by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that under such programs, Black renters are almost four times more likely to be evicted and Latino renters are 29% more likely to be evicted than white renters.

The agreement is the first-ever settlement for the Justice Department in a case challenging such an ordinance under the federal Fair Housing Act and could put on notice the approximately 2,000 other communities around the country who have enacted similar forms of ‘crime-free’ programs, according to Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke.

The Justice Department first sued the city in 2019 over the ordinance, singling out comments by one city councilmember who said it was necessary to correct a “demographical problem” in Hesperia as its Black and Latino populations were increasing. Another council member was quoted saying its purpose was to get landlords to remove “blight” from their rental units and compared it to calling in an exterminator to kill roaches.

Under the agreement, the city and sheriff’s department will agree to pay $950,000, with the bulk of the settlement — $670,000 — going to those who reported harm from the ordinance.

Other funds will go toward the payment of civil penalties, funding for affirmative marketing to promote fair housing in Hesperia; funding for partnerships with community-based organizations, and more, according to the DOJ.

In a call with reporters Wednesday, Clarke described in stark detail the impact the policy had on members of the community.

“This meant evictions of entire families for conduct involving one tenant or even guests, or estranged family members,” Clarke said. “It meant evictions of the survivors of domestic violence. It meant evictions in the absence of concrete and real evidence of criminal activity.”

In one case, Clarke said, a Black woman living in the city called the police repeatedly to come to her home because she did not feel safe with her boyfriend. When the sheriff’s department notified the landlord about calls and threatened the landlord with a misdemeanor, the landlord forced the woman and her children out of their home and, unable to afford long-term stay in a local motel — the woman had to uproot her entire family and leave behind a house full of furniture to relocate across the country, Clarke said.

The consent order will remain in effect over the next five years as DOJ continues to monitor the city’s compliance, and the sheriff’s department will additionally be required to conduct anti-discrimination training for deputies and other staff who interact with the city’s residents.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.