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Hesperia retreats from crackdown on group homes, settles lawsuit

Hesperia retreats from crackdown on group homes, settles lawsuit
Michael Brown, 46, spends time in 2016 reading in his room at a house in Hesperia for nonviolent felons who are homeless when they are released from jail. The house and others like it are run by a nonprofit that challenged the city's housing rules in federal court. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

When Sharon Green sued the city of Hesperia two years ago for discriminating against the group homes she ran for homeless felons, city officials doubled down on their efforts to shut down her program.

They levied daily fines on the houses she rented and pressured Green's landlords to evict her.

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Last week, Hesperia's manager and members of the City Council who had pressed the fight with Green conceded defeat when they agreed to settle her lawsuit. Under the terms of the deal, the city must refund all the money it extracted from Green and pay her legal fees, which totaled nearly half a million dollars. The city last year repealed or rewrote the housing rules at the heart of the fight after a federal judge questioned their constitutionality.

"It's about time," Green, a pastor, said in an interview Tuesday. "I'm really encouraged it has ended and ended favorably."

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California filed the suit on Green's behalf.

Calls to Hesperia officials for comment were not returned.

Through her nonprofit program, the Victor Valley Family Resource Center, Green for several years has rented houses in Hesperia to provide beds, meals and other help to hundreds of low-level offenders who have nowhere to go when they are released from jail as part of the state's effort to reduce its teeming prison population.

She operated without problems until 2015, when she rented a drab house and guesthouse on a dusty, residential road in the small, high desert city 80 miles outside of Los Angeles.

Routine visits by probation officers to check on the 13 men in the house drew the attention of some neighbors, who went to City Council meetings to complain.

One woman claimed inaccurately that the men living next to her were violent felons. The neighborhood-watch captain suggested the men were pedophiles targeting children on the street. Several others added to the chorus of complaints.

City code enforcers suddenly began issuing citations at the house as council members criticized Green's program, saying it was a symptom of a larger problem brought on by the state's prison realignment plan and Proposition 47, a 2014 law that reduced certain drug possession and theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

Mayor Russ Blewett warned at a public meeting that crime had surged throughout Hesperia — a claim not supported by crime statistics. It was, he said, a result of "the state of California releasing all these deadbeats into our community."

Mayor Pro Tem Bill Holland said the city needed to purge itself of criminal outsiders the council believed were overrunning the city the same way "you would call an exterminator to kill roaches. Same difference."

To target Green's houses, the city began enforcing an ordinance that made it illegal to run a group home in which two or more people were on probation. It also adopted a draconian rental ordinance, which required landlords to start eviction proceedings within 10 days of being notified by police that a tenant was suspected of "criminal activity" in or around the rental property. The law did not require the tenant to be arrested for the eviction proceedings to begin, and there was no way for a person to appeal.

As daily fines continued to pile up and her landlords moved to evict her, Green sued, claiming the group home and rental ordinances were illegal.

Last year, after U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte issued a preliminary injunction that halted the evictions and barred the city from enforcing its group home and rental ordinances against Green's landlords, the City Council repealed the group-home ordinance. A few months later it rewrote its rental law to make it voluntary and protect tenants' rights.

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In the settlement agreement finalized last week, the city agreed to reimburse Green nearly $14,500 in fines it had imposed. It must also pay $470,000 in legal fees to the ACLU and other attorneys who represented Green.

"This case affirms that excluding people in reentry from housing just to stigmatize and banish them is unconstitutional," said Adrienna Wong, staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California. "So is forcing landlords to evict tenants by labeling them 'nuisances' without any kind of due process."

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