'Crime-free' housing law settlement with U.S. Justice Dept puts cities on notice

An American flag waves outside the U.S. Department of Justice Building in Washington, U.S., December 15, 2020. REUTERS/Al Drago

(Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department has thrown its weight behind efforts to oppose so-called “crime-free” housing ordinances, policies that have perpetuated residential segregation.

The Department announced on Wednesday that it obtained its first settlement requiring the complete end of a crime-free rental housing program.

The milestone agreement also requires San Bernardino County and Hesperia, California, to spend roughly $1 million toward remedial efforts, including $670,000 to compensate residents harmed by its policies. The settlement is awaiting a judge’s approval.

J. Pat Ferraris, an attorney with Homan, Stone & Rossi, which is representing the City of Hesperia, told me the resolution was a “financial decision” on behalf of taxpaying residents. The city hasn’t admitted liability and “continues to vehemently deny all allegations," Ferraris said.

Hesperia enacted an ordinance in 2015 requiring landlords to evict people if the sheriff’s department notified them that a tenant engaged in purported criminal activity. The sheriff’s department worked with the city to put the policy in place, the Justice Department said.

An investigation opened in 2016 showed that officials true purpose was to address “what one city council member called a ‘demographical problem’: Hesperia’s increasing Black and Latinx population,” according to the DOJ.

The ordinance proved to be deeply flawed. At times, the city’s enforcement tore families apart, making victims of those who called police for help.

Sheriff’s deputies often demanded tenants' evictions based on the conduct of a guest and when women called to report domestic violence. Black renters were nearly four times as likely to be evicted under the ordinance than white renters, and Latino people were about 30% more likely to face eviction, the DOJ said.

One woman was evicted along with her three children after calling 911 to report that her husband was beating her with a television cable, the DOJ said.

A spokesperson for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department declined to comment.

More than a quarter of all local governments in California have enacted a crime-free housing law or advertise related training for landlords, the Los Angeles Times reported in Nov. 2020. The ordinances have spread to roughly 2,000 cities in 48 states, according to the International Crime Free Association. The organization, founded by former Mesa, Arizona, police officer Timothy Zehring, developed the crime-free housing concept.

Notably, Zehring told me he advises cities against adopting ordinances because enforcement then falls “under color of law,” which could expose municipalities to lawsuits.

Crime-free housing ordinances encourage or require private landlords to reject or evict tenants simply for having some contact with the justice system – including people merely suspected of undefined “criminal activity.” Similar policies are sometimes put in place via “nuisance” laws, which encourage eviction as a consequence of repeated police responses to a home.

A DOJ spokesperson told me they encourage renters to report concerns about such programs. The department is investigating Tampa, Florida's "crime-free multi housing" program for potential race discrimination, according to a Tampa Bay Times report in May.

The programs are generally touted as a response to rising crime, but existing research shows they’re more often a reaction to increasing diversity and are a legal mechanism that marginalizes people of color — especially women.

An analysis of the 20 California cities that experienced the largest influx of Black and Latino residents since 1990 found that the overwhelming majority enacted “crime-free” housing policies. About 85% of cities that saw a large increase in their share of Black residents enacted the policies, as did 75% of those with the largest increases in Latino residents, the Los Angeles Times reported in November 2020.

Even more striking: Fully 80% of people targeted for eviction in California’s largest cities were non-white, including in Los Angeles and Sacramento.

In 2017, an analysis by the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council similarly concluded that Maplewood, Missouri, discriminated against non-white residents, domestic violence victims and people with disabilities in enforcing its law. The small suburb had a nearly all-white population in 1950. By 2010, more than 17% of its population was Black. The group found that enforcement against Black residents was three times higher than their proportion of the population. (The city agreed to revise the law, the Associated Press reported in September 2018).

The same dynamics are present in Hesperia, a Mojave Desert city that has diversified rapidly in the past two decades. The Latino population increased from 29% to nearly 57% between 2000 and 2018, and the number of Black residents has more than doubled in that period (Black people were about 5% of the city’s population in 2018). Meanwhile, non-Hispanic white residents dropped from 62% in 2000 to 34% in 2018.

The DOJ said city officials’ own words make it clear the ordinance was enacted "with the purpose of evicting and deterring African American and Latino renters from living in Hesperia.”

The then-mayor compared the effort with calling “an exterminator to kill roaches,” according to the complaint. And a sheriff's department captain said they wanted to avoid taking years to “find some criminal charges [and] arrest the people” in low-income housing.

Hesperia has already repealed its ordinance as part of the resolution of the case.

Indeed, many lawsuits against "crime-free" housing policies by the ACLU and other advocacy groups have been successful. Faribault, Minnesota; Bedford, Ohio; and Hemet and Adelanto, both in California, repealed laws or settled suits challenging similar ordinances in just the past two years.

Deborah Archer, president of the American Civil Liberties Union and a professor at New York University School of Law, told me the DOJ settlement is a helpful step to addressing a national problem.

“It’s not like there’s one state or federal law to challenge – it’s literally town by town, city by city litigation that has to happen, which is very difficult,” Archer said. The settlement with Hesperia “provides a model for this type of litigation,” and should prompt more cities to proactively repeal their programs, she added.

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Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at hassan.kanu@thomsonreuters.com