The Justice Department is suing a city in Southern California for violating the Fair Housing Act. (1) The lawsuit claims that Hesperia’s “Crime Free Rental Housing” ordinance discriminated against African American and Latino renters. The ordinance has been amended, but previously included a mandatory eviction clause for tenants that had engaged in criminal activity, and their families. While some landlords support programs that cut down on criminal behavior, critics claim these laws are being used by cities to make neighborhoods “whiter” and not “safer.”
The Hesperia law went into effect at the beginning of 2016 and was amended in 2017 in response to an ACLU lawsuit. (2) The revisions removed some of the most controversial parts of the ordinance including mandatory tenant screenings and mandatory evictions. (3) City officials made the changes begrudgingly. Then Mayor Paul Russ said at the time of the amendment that, “The government believes criminals are a protected class and law-abiding citizens are now the bad guys.” (4)
Under federal housing law, there are seven protected classes including race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, and family status. Being a criminal is not one of them. The city of Hesperia adopted the law to address a high rate of crime associated with rental properties, but the lawsuit claims the city was using the ordinance to control a growing number of African American and Latino residents, by driving them back out of the area.
It was enforced by the Sheriff’s Department, starting with the registration of rental properties, which is still required. If a tenant engaged in criminal activity on or near the property, the Sheriff would then notify the landlord to evict all the people at that address.
The lawsuit is the result of an investigation by HUD. The Department of Housing and Urban Development says it found that a disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos had been evicted. The report says that African American renters were almost four times more likely to be evicted than non-Hispanic white renters, and that Latinos were 29% more likely to be evicted. The lawsuit claim of discrimination is partially based on comments by city council members that include statements about reversing a “demographic” shift that was happening. They had apparently said something about getting the newcomers “the hell out of our town.”
Landlords must still participate in the ordinance, but they have the option of conducting a criminal background check with the prospective or current tenant’s permission. They can also be notified by the Sheriff’s Department about any arrests that occur on or near their properties, and receive monthly crime reports. The amended ordinance also sets up an appeals process for people affected by these notices.
Crime-Free Housing Laws
Hesperia is apparently just one of many cities with this kind of ordinance. Mother Jones says that hundreds of cities have similar laws. (5) In Faribault, Minnesota, a crime-free housing law began with a handful of residents concerned about public safety, but according to some reports, there were also complaints about a growing population of Somali immigrants in the central district — many of whom would congregate on sidewalks, blocking access to stores.
The Crime Free Multi-Housing Program in Faribault made it easier for landlords to evict undesirable tenants. They did so by including something in the lease that allowed the eviction of anyone suspected of criminal behavior near the rental property. The program included training for landlords and the use of background checks for applicants. It also encouraged the eviction of whole families, if one person became a criminal suspect. The ACLU is challenging the law in Faribault as it has been in cities around the country. Cities that have amended their programs due to ACLU complaints include Hesperia, California; Faribault, Minnesota; Savannah, Georgia and Painesville, Ohio.
Public Housing One-Strike Rule
The programs in Hesperia and Faribault are very similar to current public housing rules, which also have a one-strike policy. They are designed to cut down on drug dealing and criminal activity and require the eviction of whole families because of the behavior of just one tenant. Of course, it would be difficult to evict a father, or a mother, or a teenage son, for instance, without evicting the whole family.
The one-strike policy was implemented with legislation approved by former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. There’s currently some pushback on that. This last summer, Senator Kamala Harris and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced legislation to get rid of the one-strike policy. That’s apparently still pending.
A former tenants’ attorney told Mother Jones, “The expansion of these provisions into the private housing market is very, very troubling.” But landlords are also justifiably concerned about crime. The International Crime Free Association has helped develop crime-free housing programs for decades, since the early 1990s. According to Mother Jones, its guidelines have been used by more than 2,000 cities in 48 states to “keep illegal activity off rental property.”
International Crime Free Association
The Association also offers a certification program to landlords and property managers who want to reduce crime, drugs, and gangs on their properties. It’s an 8-hour training program that includes everything from crime prevention theory and eviction issues to lease agreement with a crime free lease addendum and a training manual.
The Association’s training manual says that criminals are “like weeds.” If you allow the weed to grow, “it roots, it sprouts, and it chokes out healthy plants.” It claims that landlords and property managers who’ve implemented its policies see a 75 percent reduction in crimes and calls to 911.