Hesperia, sheriff to pay $1 million in civil rights lawsuit

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 Hispanic tenants, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday .

The settlement, which has yet to be approved by a federal judge, requires the City of Hesperia and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department to pay renters harmed by a city policy that required landlords to evict those affected by the Police were suspected of being involved in criminal activity on or near their property – regardless of whether the allegations had resulted in an arrest, charge or conviction. The terms of the settlement would be enforced through a five-year consent order requiring regular reporting to the court and the Justice Department.

The city rules were passed in 2015 as Black and Hispanic populations increased in Hesperia, a municipality of 100,000 people. At a city council meeting, a council member described their purpose as “fixing a demographic problem with people committing crimes in this community.” A study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that black tenants under the program were nearly four times more likely to be evicted and Latino tenants were 29 percent more likely than white tenants.

Hesperia’s policy was known as “crime-free housing,” one in a collection of local laws and police training instituted across the country that encouraged landlords to evict or evict tenants with criminal records or law enforcement clashes.

A 2020 Times investigation found that at least 147 cities and counties in California — more than a quarter of the local governments statewide — have implemented crime-free housing programs. The Times investigation also found that such policies have done so disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic residents in California, making it harder for them to rent housing and putting them at greater risk of eviction. Among the 20 California cities with the largest increases in black residents from 1990 to 2018, 85% agreed crime-free housing rules, found The Times.

Despite concerns about racial bias, the programs often have strong support from police, prosecutors and politicians who claim they help protect neighborhoods, particularly in areas with drug and gang-related problems. However, Hesperia’s crime-free policy was among the most extreme.

Before passing their ordinance, city leaders and sheriff’s department officials said they were fed up with what they called an influx of residents committing crimes — even though the crime rate was stable at the time. One council member said the crime-free housing policy is designed to weed out criminal misfits the same way you would call in an exterminator to kill roaches.

Enforcement was strict. In one case, a woman and her three children were evicted from their home after calling 911 to report that her husband had hit her with a television cable, the federal investigation found. The program also encouraged landlords to evict entire families, even if only one person was allegedly involved in criminal activity.

The Justice Department sued Hesperia and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department in 2019, alleging that the policies violate federal fair housing and antidiscrimination statutes. At the time, city officials said that statements made by council members ahead of the passage of the crime-free housing ordinance referred to criminal elements, not blacks and Latinos, and that they planned to defend themselves vigorously.

In response to the lawsuit and a previous lawsuit filed by a group home provider in the city, Hesperia reversed its crime-free ordinance and the sheriff’s department agreed to stop enforcement.

Under the proposed settlement, the city and sheriff’s department would have to provide $670,000 to compensate tenants harmed by the program and pay nearly $300,000 in civil penalties, fair housing marketing and partnerships with community organizations.

The Justice Department estimates that hundreds of people were affected by Hesperia’s rules. There is no set amount an individual or family can receive, and payments depend on the severity of the damage and how many funds are applying, federal officials said.

https://www.latimes.com/homeless-housing/story/2022-12-14/hesperia-crime-free-housing-eviction-lawsuit-settled Hesperia, sheriff to pay $1 million in civil rights lawsuit

Alley Einstein

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