The U.S. Department of Justice sued the city of Hesperia and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department on Monday, charging they discriminated against African Americans and Latinos through wrongful evictions.
The lawsuit cited a 2016 Hesperia rental ordinance that required landlords to evict tenants identified by the Sheriff’s Department as having committed transgressions on or near the property. The suit said the city passed the law to target Latino and African American tenants, many of whom were disproportionately evicted.
Hesperia, a Mojave Desert city of just under 100,000 people, passed the ordinance at a time when its African American and Latino populations were growing.
The ordinance led to the evictions of entire families, including children, during a year and a half in which the city forced landlords to comply, the suit said.
It was filed after an investigation by the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that black renters were nearly four times as likely to be evicted as non-Hispanic whites and Latino tenants were 29% more likely to be evicted than non-Hispanic whites.
Renters were evicted in violation of the Fair Housing Act even if they had not committed any crimes, the suit said. The Sheriff’s Department determined which tenants should be ousted.
In one case, the Sheriff’s Department demanded the eviction of an elderly Latino couple after their adult son, who did not live with them, was arrested, the suit said.
Though the ordinance was billed as a crime-fighting measure, its true purpose was to drive “African American and Hispanic or Latino renters from their homes and from Hesperia and by deterring other African Americans and Latinos from moving to the city,” the suit said
During a 2015 City Council meeting on the measure, elected officials made public statements that betrayed racist intent, the suit said.
It quoted one council member as saying the ordinance was needed “to correct a demographical problem” and others as saying the problem lay with new residents who had moved in from Los Angeles County.
The suit said the majority of renters in Hesperia in 2016 were African American or Latino.
Rachel Molina, a spokeswoman for the city, said the council members’ statements cited in the suit referred to criminal elements, not minorities.
“First and foremost, I would like to say that Hesperia is a very diverse community,” Molina said. “We love and embrace diversity in Hesperia.”
She said the city had not yet been served with the lawsuit on Monday, but information she reviewed on the Department of Justice website was “factually inaccurate.”
“The city intends to vigorously defend the lawsuit,” she said.
The suit seeks an injunction to stop future discrimination and calls for financial compensation for tenants who were harmed by the ordinance.
Sharon Green, who runs a housing nonprofit organization that sued Hesperia over its ordinances, said she hopes the suit filed Monday 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.”
The filing came six years after federal prosecutors accused the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department of violating the U.S. Constitution and federal laws in its treatment of blacks and other residents of public housing in the Antelope Valley.
Residents had complained of surprise inspections of government-subsidized, or Section 8, housing intended to ensure residents are meeting the terms of their assistance.
Times staff writers Joel Rubin and Liam Dillion contributed to this report.