The U.S. Department of Justice has reached a first-of-its-kind agreement with a California city and sheriff's department over a "crime-free" rental housing program that led to Black people and Latinos being evicted from their homes based on allegations they had committed crimes.
The consent decree announced this week requires Hesperia, California, and the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department to end the program. About 2,000 other communities in 48 states have similar ordinances, the Justice Department said, but it did not say whether any of those jurisdictions were under investigation.
The ordinances encourage or even require landlords to evict tenants based on allegations they committed crimes on or near the rental property, even if the alleged offenses are minor.
“We’ve seen cases where whole families were evicted because of allegations against one person,” said Deborah Archer, president of the American Civil Liberties Union and a law professor at New York University.
Hesperia officials could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon. The sheriff's department released a statement saying it could not comment because the case has not been formally dismissed by a federal judge.
The settlement is the result of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the Justice Department in 2019, alleging the city of Hesperia violated the federal Fair Housing Act and Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination.
The lawsuit was filed after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conducted an investigation into Hesperia's program and found that Black renters were almost four times more likely to be evicted under the program than white renters; Latino renters were 29% more likely.
“This settlement sends a message to communities across the country that these ordinances and programs are harmful and illegal and should force them to rethink what they’re doing,” Archer said.
The Justice Department said in the lawsuit that the sheriff’s department's "eviction campaign" included a document listing more than 250 people it had targeted for eviction.
The program in Hesperia required rental property owners to evict tenants when they received notice from the sheriff's department that the tenants had engaged in alleged criminal activity on or near the property, whether or not the allegations resulted in an arrest, charge or conviction, the Department of Justice said in a news release.
It also encouraged landlords to evict entire families when only one household member engaged in purported criminal activity, even survivors of domestic violence, federal officials said.
“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," Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement.
In one instance, the Justice Department said, a Black woman called police repeatedly because she did not feel safe with her boyfriend at her home.
The sheriff’s department then notified her landlord about the domestic disturbances and threatened the landlord with a misdemeanor for violating the crime-free ordinance.
In turn, the landlord evicted the woman and her children, federal officials said. With nowhere to go, the family moved into a motel and attempted to rent another home in Hesperia, but her applications were repeatedly denied, the Justice Department said.
Unable to rent another home for her family, she was forced to uproot her life, leave a house full of furniture behind and move across the country, federal officials said.
“As this settlement makes clear, the Justice Department will continue to fight discriminatory and unlawful ‘crime-free’ ordinances across the country and work to ensure that everyone has fair and equal access to housing,” Clarke said.