Hesperia Settles Housing Discrimination
By Dianne Anderson
What brought down a $1 million settlement from the city of Hesperia and the Sheriff’s department for Black and Latino victims over “crime-free” rental housing policy could set the bar for more settlements to come.
Kailin Scott hopes the recent Department Of Justice lawsuit sets a precedent that may open doors, and offer leverage for her to push for a Fair Housing Council in San Bernardino.
“Especially for these new developing cities that don’t have laws on their books, or if they do, it’s super outdated and very racist and discriminatory because of when they were established,” said Kailin Scott, CEO and director of Neighborhood Housing Services of the Inland Empire (NHSIE).
Hesperia is one of the cities that her agency has identified to call attention to the affordable housing crisis there, and the lack of development in the area.
“It’s so rural out there. It’s almost like the wild wild west, like they’re trying to figure things out as they go,” she said.
Scott believes San Bernardino County is long overdue for extra support to deal with housing racial discrimination. Right now, the county has a Legal Aid Society and municipalities to press renter complaints, but she said resources are scarce in cities like Hesperia.
As smaller rural cities develop, she expects to see more discrimination cases compared to established cities like Long Beach or Los Angeles, which have legal experience in handling these types of cases.
Even before COVID-19 and when the eviction moratorium was lifted, cases like the ones mentioned in the lawsuit have been ongoing. People were being evicted without cause.
“[Landlords] were just saying, so sue me. They know people in that position don’t have the means to sue or have the knowledge to know that they can sue,” she said
Without oversight by an external third party to hold entities accountable in the county, she feels there will always be new ways of redlining and discrimination toward re-segregation.
“It must be done by an external party, it can’t be the city or law enforcement,” said Scott, who has a background in community organizing and policy work. “Policy and oversight will be the only way to ensure that those underserved and unprotected populations are being protected.”
NHSIE is commissioned by HUD to push for fair affordable housing and rental properties, foreclosure prevention, down payment assistance and homebuyer education, but she is not positioned to receive or actively pursue complaints.
The Justice Department Consent Order states that the defendants deny allegations, and do not admit any liability.
Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, responded to the landmark agreement following the settlement that addresses policies around alleged criminal activities.
She said an estimated 2,000 communities across at least 48 states that have enacted some form of a “crime-free” program.
“Indeed, these “crime-free” programs often amplify the stark, documented racial disparities across our criminal legal system – in which, for example, Black individuals are arrested at five times the rate of white people – and bring those disparities to bear in the housing market. These programs can uproot lives and destabilize communities; often unjustly forcing people into homelessness and resulting in lost jobs, schooling and opportunities,” she stated.
Through the “crime-free” ordinance, Clark said the lawsuit alleged the City of Hesperia with support from San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department forced Black and Latinx renters out of their homes, and also to discourage Black and Latinx applicants from moving to Hesperia.
In one case, she referenced a Black woman who had called the police about domestic violence, and the Sheriff’s department then threatened the landlord with a misdemeanor over the disturbance calls. Because of her eviction, she and her children were repeatedly denied other rental applications. Others were also forced out of rentals for calling 911 for help, or the police.
The examples are not isolated or unique, she said, and highlights ways the program harmed families without advancing public safety.
“As previously noted, the use of such “crime-free” ordinances is not limited to the City of Hesperia. We hope today’s settlement sends a strong message to other jurisdictions with “crime-free” programs across the country, letting them know that they will be held accountable if their programs are discriminatory,” she said.
The ACLU has also represented many tenants in different states to challenge these types of policies using constitutional and civil rights protections.
Sandra Park, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, said residents who face eviction or other penalties under local nuisance or crime-free housing policies can seek help through fair housing organizations or file their complaints with HUD.
Park said that policies frequently violate the Fair Housing Act, and often discriminate against people of color, domestic violence survivors, and people with disabilities.
She points to a new federal law that went into effect last October to protect tenants and landlords from local policies that penalize residents for calling for emergency assistance, or based on alleged criminal activity for which they are not at fault.
“This new law applies to local governments that receive funding from HUD via the Community Development Block Grant, which covers thousands of jurisdictions,” she said in an email. “The law guarantees the right of residents to report emergencies from one’s home, including domestic violence survivors, who are often targeted by these policies, as seen in Hesperia.”
The settlement may be able to impact or spur other similar rental housing discrimination cases going forward. She said it shows the federal government’s strong interest in challenging these discriminatory policies and follows many others reached by the ACLU in its litigation efforts.
She emphasized that cities committed to creating safe communities should take away the important lesson – repeal these policies and instead focus on measures that support inclusive neighborhoods.
“Extensive research on the impact of these local nuisance and crime-free housing programs establishes that they hurt communities, by enlisting police to threaten landlords and tenants and depriving families of housing. There is no evidence that they actually reduce crime,” she said.
To see the settlement,
For more examples of ACLU cases, see www.aclu.org/notanuisance
To see the new HUD law to protect tenants in calls for emergencies http://bit.ly/3Xb86Y8