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Accused of illegally evicting Black and Latino renters, SoCal city, sheriff to pay $1 million

Two people talk in an office.
Domingo Nuñez speaks with Brittany Johnson Thompson at the Victor Valley Resource Center in Hesperia in 2020. Crime-free housing policies made it hard for Nuñez to find housing after his release from prison.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)
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A Mojave Desert community and sheriff’s department will be forced to spend nearly $1 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit alleging they discriminated against Black and Latino renters, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday.

Federal prosecutors hailed the case against the city of Hesperia and San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department as a landmark effort to combat policies popular in California and across the country that encourage landlords to evict or exclude tenants with criminal histories or brushes with law enforcement.

Investigations by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and The Times have shown so-called “crime-free housing” laws have disproportionately affected Black and Latino residents, making it harder for them to rent apartments and leaving them at greater risk of eviction.

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“These crime-free programs often amplify the stark documented racial disparities across our criminal legal system,” said Assistant Atty. Gen. Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division when announcing the settlement Wednesday. “These programs can uproot lives and destabilize communities often unjustly forcing people into homelessness and resulting in lost jobs, schooling and other opportunities.”

The settlement, which still needs approval by a federal judge, requires Hesperia and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department to pay tenants harmed by a crime-free housing ordinance that required landlords to evict those who police had suspected were involved in criminal activity at or near the property — regardless of whether the allegations had resulted in an arrest, charges or conviction. The settlement terms would be enforced by a five-year consent order that requires regular reporting to the court and Justice Department.

The ordinance was passed in 2015 as the Black and Latino populations in Hesperia, a community of 100,000, were increasing. In one city council meeting, a council member described their purpose as “to correct a demographical problem with people that are committing crimes in this community.” An investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that Black renters were almost four times more likely, and Latino renters were 29% more likely, to be evicted under the program than white renters.

Nearly 2,000 communities in the U.S. and elsewhere encourage landlords to evict or exclude tenants who have had some interaction with law enforcement.

“The program entrusted the Sheriff’s Department with tremendous power, latitude and discretion, all of which was used and abused to disrupt the lives of Hesperia’s residents, many of whom were Black and Latinx,” Clarke said. “As our lawsuit clearly sets forth, in enforcing the crime-free program, the Sheriff’s Department targeted Black and Latinx individuals and neighborhoods.”

Clarke said that Hesperia’s crime-free housing rules were among 2,000 such policies — either local laws or police trainings — that existed in cities nationwide. Wednesday’s settlement, she said, was the first in a case where federal prosecutors challenged a city’s crime-free housing ordinance.

A 2020 Times investigation showed that at least 147 cities and counties in California — more than a quarter of local governments across the state — have had crime-free housing programs. Among the 20 California cities with the largest increases in Black residents from 1990 to 2018, 85% approved crime-free housing rules, The Times found. In a state pilot program that covers four of California’s largest cities — Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland and Sacramento — nearly 80% of those targeted for eviction from 2015 through 2019 were not white.

Despite concerns about racial bias, the programs often draw strong support from police, prosecutors and politicians who contend that they help keep neighborhoods safe, especially in areas with drug- and gang-related problems.

Hesperia’s crime-free policy, however, was among the most extreme.

Before they passed their ordinance, city leaders and Sheriff’s Department officials said they were fed up with what they called an influx of residents who were committing crimes — even though the crime rate was stable at the time. One council member said that the crime-free housing policy was designed to weed out criminal outsiders the same way “you would call an exterminator to kill roaches.”

After the jail cells and city streets, life under one of Sharon Green’s roofs comes as a relief.

Enforcement was severe, and drove some families out of Hesperia entirely.

In 2016, Kimberly Hackett was living in a rented single-family home with her three teenage children when she called 911 nine times over three days to report her partner for domestic violence. Even though Hackett, who is Black, was the victim, the Sheriff’s Department notified her landlord about the numerous domestic disturbance calls and threatened the landlord with a misdemeanor under the crime-free housing law, prosecutors said.

After Hackett’s family was evicted she couldn’t find another place to live in Hesperia. They spent three months in an extended-stay motel before moving to Georgia.

The move was especially heartbreaking because her 15-year-old twins loved attending Oak Hills High School nearby, Hackett said in an interview. Leaving Hesperia also broke up Hackett’s family. Her 18-year-old son refused to go with them to Georgia because he wanted to remain in the community.

“I was angry about a lot of things that happened within those months,” said Hackett, 48. “I lost everything.”

The Justice Department sued Hesperia and the Sheriff’s Department in 2019, saying that the policies violated federal fair housing and anti-discrimination laws. At the time, city officials said that council members’ statements prior to the passage of the crime-free housing ordinance referred to criminal elements, not Black and Latino residents, and that they planned to vigorously defend themselves.

Sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Allison said the department could not comment because the case is still in litigation.

The Redlands law firm Homan, Stone & Rossi represented Hesperia in the suit. In an email, attorney J. Pat Ferraris said “the resolution of this matter by the City was based solely on a sound financial decision on behalf of the citizens of the City. At no time has the City admitted liability in this matter, and the City continues to vehemently deny all allegations contained within the complaint filed by the Department of Justice.”

In response to the litigation and a prior suit filed by a group home provider in the city, Hesperia repealed its crime-free ordinance, and the Sheriff’s Department agreed to stop enforcement.

Hesperia passed an ordinance intended to address what one City Council member called a “demographical problem” — the city’s increasing black and Latino population, prosecutors said.

Under the proposed settlement, the city and Sheriff’s Department would have to set aside $670,000 to compensate tenants harmed by the program and pay nearly $300,000 in civil penalties, for marketing to promote fair housing and for partnerships with community organizations.

Justice Department officials said that the case should serve as a warning to other communities with crime-free housing policies. Two years ago, the city of Hemet in Riverside County agreed to repeal its crime-free housing ordinance and spend $200,000 to improve conditions for low- and middle-income households following a HUD investigation.

“Jurisdictions should be on notice,” Clarke said. “We will continue to work to eliminate discriminatory housing practices root and branch across our country.”

U.S. Atty. Martin Estrada of the Central District of California said that prosecutors already had identified at least 15 people who qualify for the settlement funds in the Hesperia case and that they were combing through records to find other victims. There’s no set amount an individual or family can receive and payments will depend on the severity of the harm and how many apply for funds, federal officials said.

Hackett said she plans to seek compensation.

“When you feel discriminated against, a lot of time there’s nothing you can do. There’s no result to it. It’s just something you have to deal with,” she said. “Finally, there is some justice.”


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