DOJ Files Suit Against City of Hesperia and San Bernardino County Sheriffs for Housing Discrimination

DOJ Files Suit Against City of Hesperia and San Bernardino County Sheriffs for Housing Discrimination

S.E. Williams Contributor

Last week U.S. Attorney General Williams Barr mouthed a veiled threat to communities of color who dared to raise their voices against the historic and unrelenting injustice across the country by rogue police and those who believe they are somehow above the law. 

“I think today,” he began, “American people have to focus on something else which is the sacrifice and the service that is given by our law enforcement officers. And, they have to start showing more than they do, [in relation to] the respect and support that law enforcement deserves. And, if communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”

Black and Brown residents in the City of Hesperia may wish to take issue with Barr’s threat and instead challenge him regarding the purported failure of “sacrifice and service” on behalf of officers in their community when they were repeatedly and systematically denied the protections they are entitled to by the officers sworn to protect them. 

Afterall, it was Barr’s own Justice Department on December 2, 2019 who filed suit against the City of Hesperia, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and the County of San Bernardino for allegedly failing to enforce the Fair Housing provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

The suit claimed, “[These entities] separately and collectively have engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination against residents and prospective residents of Hesperia because of race and national origin.” The lawsuit raised real concerns about a municipality being complicit with the sheriff’s department to leverage their power and authority to intimidate and stress minority members of the community who are already historically subjected to disparate treatment by police. 

The actions were planned and systematic. Although Hesperia’s Assistant City Manager Rachel Molina told The IE Voice/Black Voice News, “The information in the DOJ press release is factually incorrect and grossly misleading,” consider the following as detailed by the DOJ. 

“[Y]ou are trying to eliminate them, you are trying to pluck them out and make them go somewhere else.” The purpose of the ordinance was to get each landlord “to rid his rental. . . of that blight,” similar to “call[ing] an exterminator out to kill roaches, same difference.”
– Former Hesperia Mayor
Pro Tem Bill Holland

On November17, 2015 Hesperia—with substantial support from the San Bernardino County Sheriffs’  Department, which is contracted to provide the city’s police services, enacted Ordinance 2015-12, entitled “An 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.” The ordinance went into effect on January 1, 2016 and remained in effect until about July 18, 2017. 

The ordinance mandated rental property owners evict their tenants if the Sheriffs’ Department (Department) notified them, the tenant(s) had engaged in any purported criminal activity on or near the property. The ordinance further mandated criminal background checks, Department screenings for tenant applicants, and annual inspections of rental properties by the Department.

Although the city has claimed it implemented the ordinance to reduce crime, its true purpose according to the DOJ, was to address a so-called “demographical problem” by driving African American and Hispanic or Latino (Latino) renters from their homes, from Hesperia, and to deter other African Americans and Latinos from moving to the city.  

The Sheriff’s Department, tasked with enforcing the ordinance, exercised what the DOJ referred to as, “Its substantial discretion to target African American and Latino renters, as well as renters who lived in majority-minority areas of Hesperia.”  The Department purportedly demanded the evictions of entire families for conduct involving one tenant or even guests or estranged family members. It demanded evictions of victims of domestic violence and they called for eviction even when they lacked concrete evidence of criminal activity. 

Their eviction efforts, however, did not stop there. The DOJ claimed officials also threatened and took action against housing providers that failed to evict tenants in alignment with the ordinance by leveraging fines, etc.  

Although Molina has claimed, “At no time did the City’s crime-free ordinance discriminate against residents of any ethnicity.” The DOJ insists, the city and sheriffs enacted and enforced the ordinance with the intent and effect of disproportionately impacting African American and Latino renters.  

The African American and Latino populations of Hesperia grew in recent decades. In 1990 Hesperia’s non-Hispanic white residents were 76.8 percent of the city’s population; by 2000 their percent of the city’s population had dropped to 62.4 percent; and by 2010 their percent of population had dropped to 41.1 percent. 

When the City of Hesperia with the support of the Sheriff’s Department considered and adopted the rental property ordinance in 2015 it justified its implementation based on a purported connection between rental properties and increased illegal activity, coupled with law enforcement (911) calls for service.

Molina offered a similar rationale in justifying the program to The IE Voice/Black Voice News. “There are crime free programs across the United States aimed at providing residents with safer communities,” she opined noting, “In the recent past, HUD supported such programs.” She continued, “One of the best things about Hesperia is its diversity. The City loves and embraces its diverse community.”

However, statements made by city and sheriff department officials leading up to the enactment of the ordinance belie the city’s rationale for its implementation as well as Molina’s profession of the city’s agape love of diversity. Here are some statements made by officials at the time:

Mayor Pro Tem Bill Holland (former)

“We are surgically going after those elements that create an inordinate amount of problems in every single neighborhood.” He continued, “You are trying to eliminate them, you are trying to pluck them out and make them go somewhere else.” He also stated that the ordinance’s purpose was to get each landlord “to rid his rental . . . of that blight,” similar to “call[ing] an exterminator out to kill roaches, same difference.”  

City Councilmember Mike Leonard

“[W]e’ve had a lot of people from over the hill move up here that are not very friendly people,” and “we need to work on getting them out of here.” He also stated “[W]e need to get [the ordinance] going because we are falling further and further behind on our ability to cut down some of our problem areas.”  According to DOJ, Leonard claimed the ordinance would straighten out Hesperia’s issues with a lot of Section 8 housing. He told other councilmembers, “You just pay more taxes to support these people that are sucking up the Section 8 housing, we need to get them out.” 

Captain Nils Bentsen of the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department (currently, Hesperia City Manager)

Hesperia’s renters—which include an overrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos in comparison to their share of homeowners—were described by Bentsen and members of the Hesperia City Council as dangerous because they considered them anti-social and claimed they victimized homeowners. They further disparaged Hesperia’s Section 8 Voucher holders, three-quarters of whom were African American or Latino. Bentsen compared the ordinance to his previous efforts evicting people in a Section 8 house claiming it took them years to, “Find some criminal charges [and] arrest the people.” 

Former Hesperia City Manager Mike Podegracz has claimed Bentsen was the driving force behind the ordinance noting Bentsen testified in uniform before the Hesperia City Council at least six months before the ordinance was enacted, to supposedly see if the Council was willing to establish a mandatory, crime free rental program.  

According to Podegracz, Bentsen cited data he claimed showed a nexus between rental properties and increased crime. However, DOJ found the data he cited was misleading and incomplete. It further concluded Bentsen provided no evidence that any of the data points were appropriate measures of crime rates. 

In addition, the Sheriff’s Department began planning for an internal unit to enforce the ordinance before it was approved/enacted. This included the purchase of Crime Free tracking software that allowed them to quickly determine if a prospective tenant has been in violation of the Crime Free program anywhere in San Bernardino County.  

Bentsen even advised members of the council that, under Crime Free, individuals did not have to be convicted of a crime to be evicted, and that misdemeanor crimes that mostly go unprosecuted, like disturbances, could be enough to warrant eviction. Bentsen further advised councilmembers the ordinance was designed to be “lighter on the requirements and more-heavy on the enforcement.” 

When the city implemented Ordinance 2015-12 it did so over the objections of some property management organizations; and, despite a letter from a fair housing organization which declared in part, “[The ordinance] undermines law enforcement efforts, imposes unfair burdens on owners, conflicts with the City’s fair housing obligations, and creates devastating effects on Hesperia residents who are most in need of law enforcement services.”   

In response, Councilmember Russ Blewett (later Mayor now deceased) said he didn’t care what fair housing said about the people the ordinance targeted. And, Councilmember Paul Russ responded by saying maybe the council should go down to the Fair Housing organization’s office and start poking their noses into its business. 

Several other housing agencies expressed concerns to the city over the legality of the ordinance, but the City of Hesperia pressed ahead regardless.  Officials made the Sheriff’s Department the only entity with discretion to decide whether a situation required an eviction and the department exercised its discretion in all aspects of the ordinance’s enforcement which explicitly gave “discretion” to the chief of police (San Bernardino County Sheriff) to determine whether and what evidence and documents would be sent to housing providers as notification for them to evict a tenant. 

The Department appeared to apply the ordinance on a case by case basis handling each situation differently. As noted by DOJ applying more of a “spirit of the law determination than a fixed set of rules.”  As a result, sheriffs routinely determined that tenants should be evicted despite the absence of any conviction or court judgment. In some instances, citations for minor incidents like complaints of loud noise or music on more than one occasion was considered reason enough to trigger an eviction. 

The DOJ said even conduct that was legal under California state law could justify an eviction. As sheriff department staff explained to one housing provider, even if their tenant has a medical marijuana card, “They will be in violation of the Crime Free Program [even though as] police, we can’t arrest someone for smoking marijuana who has a card.”

The sheriff’s department went so far as to provide legal advice to property owners in order to assist them with their convictions. Also, according to the DOJ, “The Sheriff’s Department also encouraged owners to use extra-judicial tactics to eject tenants from their homes.” Encouraging them to use whatever method fit the situation to evict tenants, provided the tenants left. 

The Sheriff’s Department is alleged to have encouraged owners to evict entire households when one member of the tenants engaged in purported criminal activity.   One owner was told by the Sheriff’s Department even if he/she was not sure which one of their tenants was arrested, “Under the new city ordinance any arrest on the premises means the whole house is subject to eviction anyway.”

Landlords were also encouraged to begin evictions of victims of domestic violence even though the ordinance contained language suggesting they be protected. In one egregious example cited by DOJ, a woman and her three children were evicted from a majority-minority census block after she called 911 to report that her husband was beating her with a television cable.

In another instance, sheriffs told the landlord of an African American domestic violence victim that the she was “allowing the problem to continue.” Sheriffs gave the landlord permission to warn the domestic violence victim that if she allowed her husband back into the home and the problem persisted, “she would be subject to eviction.”    

Hesperia residents reported to the department of Housing and Urban Development that they were scared to call the police due to the fear of eviction.

Using 911 calls as a lever to evict residents appeared to undermine the city’s assertion that the principal purpose of Ordinance 2015-12 was to reduce crime and make neighborhoods safer. This purported purpose was further undermined by allegations the sheriffs threatened owners with fines if they failed to evict tenants as directed. 

Although the ordinance did not specifically require owners to deny housing to applicants flagged by the Sheriff’s Department during the screening process, the department instead warned landlords about renting to such tenants. For example, the department purportedly described such tenants as “potential future violators” and in another instance warned the owner, “[Y]ou just have to keep the consequences in mind along with the knowledge that you’re renting to a previously bothersome tenant.”  

In summary the DOJ determined the ordinance resulted in particularly harsh consequences for African American and Latino renters and renters in majority-minority areas. As a result, African American and Latino renters were significantly more likely than Whites to lose their homes because of the ordinance.

Molina claimed, “Like the DOJ, Hesperia supports the rights of all ethnic groups to reside where they choose.” And declared, “The City will defend against the false allegations in this lawsuit.”

Although the County of San Bernardino is also named in the DOJ lawsuit spokesperson David Wert said, “This lawsuit really doesn’t have anything to do with the county. The focus is on a City of Hesperia ordinance, which the Sheriff’s Department enforced in its role as the City of Hesperia’s contract police department. The county has no such ordinance. As such, the City of Hesperia is handling all lawsuit defense matters.” Wert said. When pressed further on this point Wert responded, “The consensus seems to be that the County was named in error.” 

The IE Voice/Black Voice News reached out to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department for comment but as of press time they had not responded.

About The Author

S.E. Williams

Stephanie E. Williams is an award winning investigative reporter, editor and activist who has contributed to several Inland Empire publications. Williams spent more than thirty years as a middle-manager in the telecommunications industry before retiring to pursue her passion as a reporter and non-fiction writer. Beyond writing, Williams’ personal interests include stone-carving, drumming and sculpting.

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