“The Justice Department is committed to ensuring housing policies do not discriminate against individuals based on their race, including so-called ‘crime-free’ programs,” said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta.
Gail Fry | IE Voice News Contributor
The United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) announced in a December 14 press release it has secured a landmark agreement to resolve a race and national origin discrimination lawsuit against the City of Hesperia (Hesperia) and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBCSD).
The settlement was reached over allegations Hesperia and SBCSD engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination against Black and Latino renters in Hesperia through the adoption and enforcement of its “crime-free” rental housing program.
Individuals harmed by Hesperia’s “crime-free” program may be entitled to compensation under the settlement fund and should contact the USDOJ by calling 1-833-223-1571 or by applying online at Hesperia.Investigation@usdoj.gov.
In November 2015, Hesperia, with substantial support from the Hesperia Police Department (HPD), passed an ordinance with the alleged goal of ensuring “crime-free housing”.
Hesperia contracts with the SBCSD for law enforcement services to Hesperia, through the HPD.
Hesperia claimed the ordinance was to reduce crime. USDOJ concluded that Hesperia’s true purpose was to address a so-called demographic problem by driving Black and Latino renters from their homes. USDOJ found these actions frightened others from moving to Hesperia.
The number of Latino residents in Hesperia rose by 140% between 2000 and 2010, from 18,400 up to 44,091, while Black residents rose by 103% from 2,388 to 4,853, according to DOJ. White residents on the other hand, declined from 64.2% in 2000 to 41.1% in 2010, down to 35.8% by 2016.
Discrimination in action
In response to the influx of people of color, on November 17, 2015, the City Council of Hesperia passed its new ordinance requiring registration and regulation of housing rental businesses.
It required all landlords to register their properties, pay an annual fee, or face fines, and/or a misdemeanor charge. Landlords were also required to submit all tenancy applicants’ names to HPD for criminal background screening, pay for the service, or be fined for non-compliance.
All rental properties within Hesperia were subjected to annual inspections purportedly seeking criminal evidence, at a cost of $100 to landlords. Landlords were also required to correct areas that could hide criminal activity or face a $400 fine.
Owners of rental property were required to add a Hesperia approved “Crime-free Lease Addendum” (Addendum) to all residential leases. The Addendum provided if any occupant, guest, or other person under the occupant’s control had one instance of criminal activity on or near the property, this would result in a Three-Day Notice to Quit.
The ordinance required landlords to evict a tenant if the sheriff’s department notified them of so-called criminal activity on or near the property by their tenant, occupant or guest.
Neither the ordinance nor the addendum required a conviction, or even an arrest, to trigger the three-day notice requiring all occupants vacate the premises.
Hesperia’s fee schedule for the ordinance listed fines of $500 to landlords if they failed to evict tenants, and a $250 fine if they failed to incorporate the Addendum into rental agreements.
Hesperia claimed it relied on HPD’s assessment that the ordinance was necessary as increased illegal activity and law enforcement calls were alleged to be connected to rental properties.
Council Members and HPD express racism and disdain
Yet, USDOJ observed Hesperia’s city council members speaking openly at a hearing on the ordinance, of their intention to target people moving from Los Angeles, Black and Latino tenants.
Late Hesperia City Council member Russ Blewett referred to targets as those kind of people who are of no value to this community and “I want them the hell out of our town, and I don’t care where they go.”
According to USDOJ, Mayor Eric Schmidt remarked, “People from Los Angeles County were moving to Hesperia as a cheap place to hide, bringing their tainted history, and aggravating Hesperia residents.”
Mayor Pro Tem Bill Holland explained, “We are surgically going after those elements that create an inordinate amount of the problem in every single neighborhood.” USDOJ quoted Holland as stating 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.”
Hesperia Council member Mike Leonard stated, “We’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.”
In attendance, HPD Captain Nils Bentsen joined with council members in degrading Hesperia’s renters, minorities representing 58% of the city’s households, describing them as dangerous, anti-social and victimizing homeowners.
City’s attitude toward Section 8 renters
Bentsen and council members then disparaged Hesperia’s Housing Choice (Section 8) Voucher holders, who are 75 percent Black or Latino. Council member Leonard remarked the ordinance would straighten out Hesperia’s issues with much of the Section 8 housing declaring people pay more taxes to support these people, and we need to get them out.
Captain Bentsen recalled his previous efforts evicting people in a Section 8 house where it took years to find some criminal charges and arrest the people.
With this power, the USDOJ found HPD liberally enforced the ordinance to target and discriminate against Black and Latino renters living in majority-minority areas of Hesperia.
HPD manipulated data to advocate for program
USDOJ found HPD, through captain Bentsen, now Hesperia’s City Manager, provided significant support and resources to help Hesperia create and prepare to implement the ordinance prior to its passage.
According to then Hesperia City Manager Mike Podegracz, since 2014, Captain Bentsen was the driving force behind the ordinance.
Testifying in uniform at meetings for over six months, Bentsen claimed one-third of 911 calls in the city and a large proportion of calls requiring multiple response citations came from rental properties, and nine of 10 homicides in Hesperia from 2012 through 2014 occurred at rental properties.
USDOJ found Bentsen’s testimony misleading, for instance, Bentsen included alarm calls in his count to falsely misrepresent 80 percent of multiple response citations, and used homicide statistics to exaggerate the crime rate for rental properties.
Warnings from concerned citizens ignored
USDOJ found HPD planned an internal unit to enforce the ordinance before it passed, and purchased crime-free tracking software allowing the department to quickly determine if a prospective tenant was in violation in San Bernardino County.
A property management director warned that the ordinance was trampling on civil rights. A group of realtors objected that time spent inspecting rental properties would reduce its ability to protect the public.
The Fair Housing Council of Riverside representative explained that the ordinance would undermine law enforcement efforts, impose unfair burdens on owners, conflict with Hesperia’s fair housing obligations, and devastate residents most in need of law enforcement services.
The California Apartment Association explained that key ordinance provisions were unconstitutional, inconsistent with state law, and subjected landlords to significant liability for fair housing violations and wrongful evictions.
Rental property owners questioned whether the addendum was legal, over lack of adequate tenant protections, and represented discrimination against renters the city deemed undesirable.
City council abdicated power to HPD for enforcement
Over objections, the Hesperia City Council passed the Crime-free Rental Ordinance, leaving its enforcement solely up to HPD to decide which tenants would be evicted.
USDOJ alleged that HPD harshly enforced the ordinance, routinely determining to evict tenants without any conviction or court judgment, even a 911-call for service, a negative law enforcement action, or multiple response citation, or multiple calls for a noise disturbance could trigger an eviction.
It also alleged HPD demanded evictions of entire families for conduct involving one person. HPD also evicted protected domestic violence victims, and tenants without evidence of criminal activity.
According to USDOJ, a woman with three children was illegally evicted after reporting her husband was beating her. If the domestic partner returned, HPD claimed it was a violation.
Court documents show HPD staff pressured property owners, offering to coordinate a citizen’s arrest and even legal advice to ensure evictions occurred.
USDOJ found under the ordinance, HPD evicted 96.3% of individuals and 96.9% of households from majority-minority Census blocks or 79% of rental households in Hesperia.
Conclusion and denials
Hesperia and HPD intentionally drove out Black and Latino renters, discriminated against them based on national origin, and denied minority renters the right to live in Hesperia, USDOJ concluded.
SBC, SBCSD and the City of Hesperia denied USDOJ’s allegation that their intent was discriminatory, or that their comments showed their intent to reverse demographic changes.
They also admitted statements made at the hearing by Blewett, Leonard, Schmidt, and Holland, as quoted by USDOJ, were accurate, that Bentson was present, and that a property manager testified about renters moving to Hesperia from the 323 area code.
They further admitted to statements made by Council member Leonard about the ordinance straightening out Hesperia’s Section 8 housing and Captain Bentson’s description of his efforts to find some criminal charge to evict people from Section 8 housing.
At the same time, they denied Bentson and City Council members ridiculed minority renters or those receiving Section 8 rental assistance.
SBC, SBCSD, and Hesperia also denied that Hesperia had significant support and resources from SBCSD to help it prepare to implement the ordinance before its approval or that HPD Captain Bentson was the driving force behind the ordinance, while admitting Bentson testified in uniform for over six months in support before approval.
While they denied Bentson misrepresented the number of 911 calls, they admitted Bentson included alarm calls in the multiple responses, and used inaccurate homicide numbers at rental properties for his crime statistics.
SBC, SBCSD, and Hesperia acknowledged the sheriff’s department made plans to enforce the ordinance before it passed, while claiming the sheriff’s department purchased crime-free tracking software over a year before.
Court documents showed SBC, SBCSD, and Hesperia acknowledged the Hesperia City Council tasked SBCSD to enforce the ordinance and gave discretion to the police chief (SBCSD staff) to determine the evidence and documents necessary to notify landlords of an eviction, but denied SBCSD was the only entity with discretion to evict.
They denied giving legal advice to landlords, offering to do citizen’s arrests, encouraging landlords to evict entire households when only one member was allegedly engaged in criminal activity, or instructing landlords to evict victims of domestic violence.
A settlement agreement
USDOJ participated in two settlement discussions with SBC, SBCSD, and Hesperia on October 14, 2021, and August 24, 2022, without settling. On October 5, the parties informed the court a proposed settlement agreement was reached. On December 14, 2022, the settlement (consent order), awaiting approval by a federal judge, was announced.
Under the settlement, Hesperia and HPD will be under a five-year consent order committing to significant injunctive relief to repair the effects of the “crime-free” and business license programs, including: a settlement fund of $670,000 to compensate individuals harmed by the program; the payment of $100,000 in civil penalties; funding of $95,000 for affirmative marketing to promote fair housing in Hesperia; funding of $85,000 for partnerships with community-based organizations, totaling $950,000.
The settlement requires notifications to property managers, landlords, and owners, of the ordinance changes and fee schedule; the submission of certain policies, procedures and ordinances for review and approval by USDOJ before adoption; the adoption of non-discrimination policies and complaint procedures; the designation of civil rights coordinators; anti-discrimination training; a fair housing needs assessment; regular reporting to the court and the USDOJ during the order’s five-year term.