The tentative settlement would compel Hesperia to revoke a controversial ordinance requiring landlords to evict tenants suspected of “criminal activity,” even if they were never charged, arrested, or convicted.
The United States Department of Justice has reached what has since been described as a “landmark” civil rights settlement with the city of Hesperia, California, which was accused of discriminating against Black and Latino renters.
According to ABC News, the tentative settlement will require the city and its sheriff’s department to pay $1 million in penalties and repeal an anti-crime ordinance that obliges landlords to evict tenants who have been involved in “criminal activity.”
The local law, adds ABC News, mandated evictions even if the underlying law enforcement investigation did not result in criminal charges, arrest, or conviction.
However, an analysis by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that programs like Hesperia’s are most likely to affect minority renters, who are 29% more likely to be evicted than their White counterparts.
To date, this is the first time that the Justice Department has succeeded in challenging a similar ordinance under the federal Fair Housing Act.
If the settlement is approved by the federal judge overseeing the case, it could effectively block the enforcement of similar ordinances in more than 2,000 other communities.
ABC News reports that, under the terms of the agreement, the city and sheriff’s department will pay $950,0000 in damages, with $670,000 going to residents who have claimed they suffered damages as a result of the anti-crime ordinance.
The remaining funds will be allocated to the payment of civil penalties, funding for affirmative action marketing to promote fair housing, and funding for community-based organizations.
Speaking to reporters in a teleconference call, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke described how Hesperia’s laws had hurt the city’s minority residents.
“This meant evictions of entire families for conduct involving one tenant or even guests, or estranged family members,” Clarke said. “It meant evictions of the survivors of domestic violence. It meant evictions in the absence of concrete and real evidence of criminal activity.”
Clarke shared the example of a Black woman who had repeatedly called the police, saying that she did not feel safe with her boyfriend.
When the sheriff’s department called the landlord and threatened to press misdemeanor charges, the landlord—instead of investigating the complaint or taking other action—forced the woman and her children out of their apartment.
The woman, who could not afford to stay in a motel or other accommodation long-term, had to move her family across the country.
“The right to fair housing is fundamental and should not be infringed,” U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada for the Central District of California said in a statement reprinted on the Department of Justice’s website. “This important settlement with Hesperia prevents the so-called ‘crime-free’ program from devastating individuals and families with the emotional upheaval and financial hardship that accompanies evictions that occur with little notice. Today’s agreement and consent order will bring real change to Hesperia and beyond.”