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California town ends discriminatory ‘crime-free’ housing program in settlement with feds

The Justice Department said the city forced landlords to evict Black and Latino renters under the program even when they hadn't committed any crimes.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Southern California desert city of Hesperia has ended a "crime-free" rental housing program that the U.S. Department of Justice said discriminated against Black and Latino tenants.

The city and the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, which enforced the program, have halted the 2015 ordinance that required property owners to evict tenants the sheriff’s department claimed had engaged in criminal activity on or near the property, even if the tenants weren't arrested, charged or convicted, the Justice Department said Wednesday.

In a proposed consent order filed in federal court, neither the city or the county admitted wrongdoing but agreed to contribute $670,000 to a settlement fund to compensate individuals harmed by the housing program.

It is the first Justice Department resolution requiring the complete end of a “crime-free” rental housing program, according to the government's announcement. 

“So-called ‘crime-free’ ordinances are often fueled by racially discriminatory objectives, destabilize communities and promote modern-day racial segregation,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “These ordinances can uproot lives, force families into homelessness and result in loss of jobs, schooling, and opportunities for people who are disproportionately low-income people of color."

The Justice Department sued the city of about 100,000, 80 miles northeast from Los Angeles, in 2019 after an investigation by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department had found that Hesperia, with support from the sheriff’s department, enacted a "crime-free" program with the intent of addressing what one City Council member had called a “demographical problem” — Hesperia’s increasing Black and Latin population.  

The program, according to the feds, not only required property owners to evict tenants upon notice of alleged criminal activity by them, it also encouraged landlords to evict entire families when only one household member engaged in the purported criminal activity and even notified landlords to evict survivors of domestic violence.

The city also required property owners to screen potential tenants through the sheriff’s department, which would notify landlords whether the applicant had “violated” the rules of the program in the past. Hesperia also later passed an ordinance that made registration in the “crime-free” program mandatory for landlords and that imposed excessive fees, according to the Justice Department. 

Among the victims of the city's program was a Black woman who called the police repeatedly to come to her home because she did not feel safe with her boyfriend, the Justice Department said. The sheriff’s department notified her landlord about the numerous domestic disturbance calls and threatened the landlord with a misdemeanor, prompting the landlord to force the woman and her children out of their home.

Another victim, according to the Justice Department, was a Latina who had called the police when her boyfriend was experiencing a mental health crisis at her home. When the sheriff’s department arrived before the paramedics, the boyfriend was arrested and the woman then received a notice to vacate based on the supposed violation of the ordinance.

"The resolution of this matter by the city was based solely on a sound financial decision on behalf of the citizens of the city," J. Pat Ferraris, an attorney representing Hesperia, said in an email. "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."

Representatives of San Bernardino County didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The city and sheriff's department halted enforcement of the program last month per the proposed consent order.

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