Civil Rights Law Enforcement Race Racial Justice

DOJ Sues San Bernardino Sheriff’s Dept. and Hesperia Over Racially Discriminatory Rental Ordinance

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

On Monday, the Civil Rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the City of Hesperia and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBSD) for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act of 1988, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, by forcing homeowners to evict black and Latino renters and prospective renters, in hopes of reversing the city’s declining percentage of white residents.

In 2015, Hesperia city officials, with the strong encouragement of the SBSD, according to the DOJ’s complaint, enacted a “crime-free rental” ordinance, “purportedly” to reduce crime.

However, the true purpose of the ordinance,  with the lengthy title of, “Ordinance of the City Council of the City of Hesperia, California, Requiring the Registration and Regulation of Housing Rental Businesses for Crime Free Rental Housing,” was the city officials’ not-very-well-disguised desire to solve their “demographical problem,” by driving black and Latino renters out of the city of Hesperia, in the same way that a homeowner would “call an exterminator out to kill roaches,” as one city leader characterized the situation.

Specifically, the ordinance required property owners to evict tenants if the sheriff’s department determined those tenants had engaged in illegal activity on or near the rental property. Drug offenses occurring at any location — not just at home — triggered the same three-day eviction notice under the ordinance.

Additionally, the ordinance required both criminal background checks and sheriff’s department screenings for prospective renters. The SB Sheriff’s Department was also directed to carry out annual property inspections.

Members of the SBSD, whose job it was to enforce the city ordinance, demanded evictions of entire families, including those with small children, “for conduct involving one tenant or even guests or estranged family members,” the DOJ wrote. Victims of domestic violence were among those not spared from losing their homes under the ordinance.

The SBSD carried out eviction orders even “in the absence of concrete evidence of criminal activity,” and also in cases when no one was arrested. To make sure that the ordinance’s requirements were followed, the sheriff’s department and the city threatened and took action against those property owners who failed to eject their renters with a three-day eviction notice, hitting them with steep fines.

Enforcement was also blatantly racially targeted, according to the DOJ complaint. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) revealed that black renters were nearly four times as likely as white renters to be evicted under the new rule. Latinos were more than 25 percent more likely to be kicked out of their homes than their white peers. These evictions largely occurred in minority areas of Hesperia.

As the city was working to enact the ordinance, various officials made statements that made clear their “discriminatory intent,” according to the complaint.

City officials stressed that the problem was that undesirable minority people from Los Angeles County were moving to Hesperia, despite the fact that, as the DOJ’s complaint states, “approximately three-quarters of new Hesperia residents between 2012 and 2016 moved there from other parts of San Bernardino County.”

“I can’t get over the fact that we’re allowing … people from LA County,” Mayor Eric Schmidt said, “to mov[e] into our neighborhoods because it’s a cheap place to live and it’s a cheap place to hide.” The renters that “aggravate us” he said, “come from somewhere else with their tainted history.”

City Councilmember Russ Blewett stated that the people that the ordinance would affect were “no addition and of no value” to Hesperia, “period,” and should “get the hell out of our town.”

“I want their butt kicked out of this community as fast as I can possibly humanly get it done,” Blewett added.

Mayor Pro Tem Bill Holland, too, said the goal was to “surgically … eliminate” the “elements that create an inordinate amount of problems in every single neighborhood,” and “make them go somewhere else.”

The ordinance, he said, would force each landlord “to rid his rental … of that blight,” in the same way that one would “call an exterminator out to kill roaches.”

“Same difference,” Holland said.

In addition, Hesperia leaders allegedly intended specifically to free up housing vouchers by, as City Councilmember Mike Leonard said, ejecting “people that are sucking up Section 8 housing.”

“We need to get them out,” Leonard said.

In the city, where a majority of residents are people of color, three-quarters of Section 8 renters are black or Latino.

Captain Nils Bentsen, of the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department, noted that in the absence of the ordinance, it took his department “years to … find some criminal charges [and] arrest the people” he deemed to be a drain on Section 8 housing.

The ordinance, Bentsen said would be “lighter on the requirements” for eviction “and more heavy on the enforcement.”

The tactics echo a similar scheme that the DOJ moved to quash in the northern part of LA County in 2015 involving the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. In this case, too, multiple local agencies were working together to keep black people (and to a lesser extent, Latino people) out of Section 8 housing.

In the 2015 case, the investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ found that officers from the Palmdale and Lancaster stations of the LA County Sheriff’s Department were conducting racially-biased searches and seizures, using excessive force against people already in handcuffs, and harassing and intimidating Section 8 housing voucher holders along with the Housing Authority of Los Angeles County (HACLA), with the intent to oust residents and push them into moving out of the area.

As part of a settlement with the DOJ, the housing agency agreed to implement 150 reforms and to compensate residents with $1,975,000 for the systemic discriminatory treatment.

“Individuals and families have a right to live where they choose, regardless of their race or national origin,” Anna María Farías, Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at HUD said in response to the DOJ’s actions against Hesperia and the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department. “HUD applauds today’s action and will continue to work with the Justice Department to address policies and practices that violate this nation’s fair housing laws.”



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Image of a Hesperia, CA neighborhood by Yosuke Wainai, Flickr.

11 Comments

  • This mirrors the Department of Justice doing the same with Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in Antelope Valley, not so long ago.

    • Remember

      This is the Federal Department of Justice

      And that means

      Trump.

      Why?

      The Presidential election is now

      less than a year away.

      • The 2020 Presidential election will determine how America really feels.

        When all of the finger pointing in the current administration and “blasts” to the past Presidents are over, a “sleeper” will come through the ranks.

        2020 will definitely be a eye opener, MASA – May America See Again

  • Big rich cities dumping their undesirables on smaller, poorer communities. Pretty clever really, make the people getting dumped on look like the bad guys, while no one notices the man behind the curtain pulling the levers of power. The old “inner city bad neighborhoods” are often located in geographically desirable areas, too close to beaches, good weather, and rich city centers to leave to broke welfare recipients. But how do get rid of a bunch of poor people of color without looking like the bad guy? With the magic of section eight of course. What single welfare mom wouldn’t jump on a newer single family house in the desert over an old run down apartment in south L.A.? not like she’s going to have to make that hellish commute or anything.

    The poor working stiffs who live in these desert communities wind up being the losers. Priced out of the nicer costal areas, they’re stuck making the best of their situation. But just in case they get any big ideas on controlling who gets dumped into their communities via section eight, state and federal agencies are there to make sure they understand that they have no choice in the matter.

    • You’re absolutely correct and yet there is no civil excuse for the Law Enforcement Agencies patrolling those area to act like the Gestapo.

  • Madame KKKong, how do you really feel. Most of these are Section 8 vouchers that folks speak of. For someone to move into the dwelling you need two people to agree, the landlord and the tenant. So, who is getting dumped. And, why should you have the ability to keep “undesirables” out? Who determines who is an undesirable? You? Please? You have quite a number of undesirables in your ranks (see below). Reminds of the days when some white people would get all “worked up” when a person of color tried to move into the neighborhood. People like you considered them undesirables and did everything to keep them out, from brick throwing to house burning, and in some places your ilk even rioted. Yes, rioted and it was not because the porcine patrol beat you up.

    I am more concerned about keeping the police that fondle dead women out of town. Dead you happen to catch that piece in the LA Times? How about that one? You guys can sure pick the winners. You got all of your bases covered, from little girl cadets to female prisoners to dead women. No woman is safe around overweight cops. I am beginning to think some of yours use the police force to meet “women,” even if they are underage or dead.

    • I long ago gave up the notion of considering who or what you are. You are a blithering racist idiot who paints cops with a very broad brush, but curiously go silent on the misdeeds of the rest of the world. No matter how many dispersions you cast on law enforcement, it will never allow you to escape the miserable wretchedness of your pathetic existence.

    • Cf, going to the party of friend of a friend who lives close to the “sketchy” part of town doesn’t make you an honorary person of color. I’m sure you have some token buddies from the “hood”, but I’m also sure you keep away from certain parts of town where you feel unsafe, and you dang sure don’t live in one of those areas. (Until it’s safely gentrified that is)
      I understand you feel guilty about this and want to show off your “street cred” by hating on the cops, but it comes across as forced and fake.

  • Keep Dreaming aka Um aka Villanueva’s spouse – Law enforcement personnel must live to the highest ethical an moral standards on and off duty. They took that job – they get paid very well for it. … and lets not forget the pension they get to live like kings and queens after retirement. So stop this veil of ignorance BS.

    Drip drip drip ..when does this stop. I bet they like their paychecks. If they feel they cannot live up to those standards they can quit. There is no place for law enforcement personnel to behave like thugs in society. If you think they can work in the gray then there is no difference between criminals and law enforcement.

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