No one wants a nuisance for a neighbor. No one wants to live next door to people who are noisy, combative or involved in a criminal enterprise, such as peddling drugs or stolen goods. No landlord wants to rent to such folks, either. Cities big and small struggle to find a balance between preventing crime and alienating the residents being policed — between enforcing laws to ensure crime-free housing while also following the laws governing fair housing.
The city of Hesperia in San Bernardino County wrestled with that issue in 2015, but got the balance disturbingly wrong. The city’s Crime Free Rental Housing ordinance, which went into effect at the beginning of this year, seeks to address an increase in “illegal activity and public nuisances” in rental properties there. San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department officials told City Council members that 90% of the city’s homicides in 2014 were committed in rental units and that 22,000 of 66,000 calls for service that year originated at rental properties.
If sheriff’s deputies make an arrest at a unit covered by such a lease, the ordinance requires the Sheriff’s Department to send a notice of criminal activity to the landlord, who must start eviction proceedings against the tenant. The degree of criminal activity doesn’t seem to matter — a raucous party appears to be just as damning as an assault with a deadly weapon. And San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department officials say they consider having to arrest someone on the premises evidence of his or her criminal activity — even if the arrest leads to no formal charges or conviction.
That alone is an appalling overreach by city officials and law enforcement. An arrest is not a finding of guilt. That’s up to a judge. But the problems with the measure do not end there. As the California Apartment Assn., which represents property owners, argued in a letter to the Hesperia city manager, “[K]ey provisions of the ordinance are unconstitutional, inconsistent with state law and subject owners to the risk of significant liability for fair housing violations and wrongful eviction.”
Both city ordinances appear headed for court battles, and rightly so. It is unacceptable for a municipality to cope with crime by adopting overly broad rules that invade tenants’ privacy and force landlords to evict tenants for minor infractions or allegations that prove unfounded. Nor should any city adopt what amounts to a blanket discriminatory rule against people who have served jail or prison time for a conviction and now seek to reenter society.
It’s fine for Hesperia to be vigilant about crime in rental properties. But not at the expense of renters’ constitutional rights.