City Can’t Bar Ex-Cons, Nonprofit Says

     RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) — Californians in the high desert town of Hesperia don’t want ex-cons living there and passed unconstitutional ordinances to keep them out, a nonprofit claims in a federal class action.
     The Victor Valley Family Resource Center (VVFRC) operates three group homes, also known as halfway houses, in Hesperia, a city of 92,000 in the Mojave Desert, 35 miles north of San Bernardino.
     The group is “dedicated to reducing homelessness and recidivism by providing homeless and previously incarcerated individuals with the skills, resources, and supports they need to successfully reintegrate into the community,” it says in its May 4 federal lawsuit.
     “Although VVRFC offers housing and supportive services for up to one year, its clients generally transition to permanent housing within six to nine months,” according to its 34-page complaint.
     “There have been no substantive complaints from neighbors regarding those homes or its residents. The homes look no different than any other home in the neighborhood,” the group says.
     The homes, which have on-site staff and are closely monitored by parole officers, are a “critical component” of California’s overhaul of its criminal justice system, plagued by unconstitutional overcrowding of prisons, the group says. The overhaul is meant to focus on rehabilitation and prevention.
     But Hesperia passed two unconstitutional ordinances to keep people out, the Resource Center says. Its Group Home Ordinance of 2007 was followed by a Rental Housing Ordinance in 2015.
     The Group Home Ordinance prohibits group homes from housing two or more people who are on probation.
     Under the Rental Housing Ordinance, landlords must hand over tenants’ personal information to the Hesperia Police Department, which conducts background checks and uploads the information to a city database administered by police. Police provide notice if a tenant engages in criminal activity, which triggers eviction proceedings, giving the landlord 10 days to kick the offending tenant out.
     Victor Valley, its CEO Sharon Green and six group home residents sued the City of Hesperia, San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon and Hesperia Code Enforcement Officer Ernesto Montes, alleging violations of state and federal law, including the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments.
     “Defendants continue to engage in policies and practices that limit the housing options for persons on probation, prohibit transitional supportive housing, and incite landlords to evict tenants like plaintiff VVFRC and its clients,” the complaint states. “By doing so, defendants not only violate plaintiffs’ constitutional and statutory rights, but also compromise public safety, increase homelessness and deprive the region of successful integrative and supportive services that make all Hesperia residents safer.”
     Hesperia residents claim the probationers endanger the community and harm property values.
     “Defendants fear that state criminal justice reforms, such as California’s Public Safety Realignment Act and the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act will cause an influx of people with criminal records to move into Hesperia, threatening their preferred ‘demographic’ for the city,” the complaint states. “Rather than participate in statewide efforts to safely reintegrate individuals with criminal records into the community, defendants have enacted and enforced municipal ordinances designed to exclude such individuals from housing in the city.”
     Hesperia’s public information officer, Rachel Molina, said the city could not comment on the lawsuit.
     “I am aware of the lawsuit, but we just got served today,” she said. “We have not been able to review the lawsuit, so we won’t be able to answer any questions.”
     The plaintiffs’ attorney, Adrienne Wong with the ACLU in San Bernardino, did not return a phone call seeking comment Friday. Nor did ACLU spokeswoman Sandra Hernandez.
     The Resource Center asks the court to permanently enjoin the defendants from enforcing the two ordinances, plus costs and attorneys’ fees.
     Hesperia, 3,186 feet high in the desert, is 49 percent Latino and 41 percent white, according to city-data.com. Its median household income of $42,990 was 29 percent below the statewide median of $60,190 in 2013. The median value of a home or condo that year was $149,200, 60 percent below the statewide median, according to city-data.

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