“As this settlement makes clear, the Justice Department will continue to fight discriminatory and unlawful ‘crime-free’ ordinances across the country and work to ensure that everyone has fair and equal access to housing,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
On December 14, The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a December 14, press release obtained by the San Bernardino American News, announcing a landmark settlement was reached with the City of Hesperia (Hesperia), its police department, and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBCSD) over allegations it targeted Black and Latino Renters through its Crime-Free Rental Program.
Those damaged by Hesperia’s “crime-free” program may be compensated under the settlement fund and are asked to contact the DOJ by calling 1-833-223-1571 or by applying online at Hesperia.Investigation@usdoj.gov.
DOJ determined, the population of Latino residents in Hesperia increased by 140% during 2000 through 2010, from 18,400 to 44,091, while Black residents increased by 103% from 2,388 to 4,853. During years 2000 until 2016, White residents declined from 64.2% in 2000 to 35.8% by 2016.
DOJ believes, in response to the changing demographics, on November 17, 2015, Hesperia, with significant support from the Hesperia Police Department (HPD), adopted an ordinance for the purported purpose of reducing its crime rate through a Crime-Free Rental Program.
Hesperia contracts with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department for its police services, providing those services through the HPD.
Hesperia predicted the ordinance would decrease crime. DOJ found otherwise, determining Hesperia’s real goal was to reverse demographic changes by evicting Black and Latino tenants, and discouraging others from moving to Hesperia.
Hesperia’s new Crime-Free Rental Program required landlords register their rental properties, rental units be annually inspected, submit tenant applications to HPD for criminal background checks, and instituting a fee schedule, fines up to $500, and criminal penalties for landlords.
The ordinance required landlords include a Hesperia adopted “Crime-free Lease Addendum” (Addendum) in residential leases. The Addendum had provisions that if any occupant, guest, or others under the tenant’s control was implicated in one incident of criminal activity, near the premises, a Three-Day Notice to Quit could issue.
The ordinance gave authority to HPD to determine what was so-called criminal activity and the power to notify, and order landlords to evict a tenant.
BENTSEN HPD SOLE AUTHORITY Link:
According to HPD Captain Nils Bentsen, because it was a civil action, the Crime-Free Rental Program did not require an arrest, a prosecution, or conviction, to serve and enforce a three-day notice to vacate, requiring all occupants to move.
BENTSEN CIVIL PROCESS Link:
Hesperia cited HPD’s evaluation and finding the ordinance was needed based on a connection between increased crime, criminals, law enforcement calls and rental properties.
BENTSEN REDUCE CRIME RENTALS Link:
DOJ obtained and listened to Hesperia’s city council meetings videos where council members freely discussed Section 8 Housing concerns, and individuals from Los Angeles, Black and Latino tenants, relocating to Hesperia.
Late Hesperia City Council member Russ Blewett described the ordinance’s 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.”
BLEWETT STOP BAD PEOPLE Link:
DOJ quoted Hesperia Mayor Eric Schmidt observing, “People from Los Angeles County were moving to Hesperia as a cheap place to hide, bringing their tainted history, and aggravating Hesperia residents.”
“We are surgically going after those elements that create an inordinate amount of the problem in every single neighborhood,” Mayor Pro Tem Bill Holland reasoned. DOJ recounted Holland explaining the goal was to require each landlord “to rid his rental…of that blight” similar to “call[ing] an exterminator out to kill roaches, same difference.”
HOLLAND SURGICAL APPROACH Link:
Hesperia City Council Member Mike Leonard declared, “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.”
LEONARD SECTION 8 Link:
At the meeting, HPD Captain Bentsen backed up council members’ negative views of Hesperia’s tenants, Latino, and Black residents making up 58% of Hesperia’s households, depicting them as threatening, unfriendly, and harming homeowners.
Bentsen and council members then spoke negatively of Hesperia’s Housing Choice (Section 8) Voucher holders, 75 percent being Black or Latino. Council member Leonard reasoned the ordinance would fix Hesperia’s problems with Section 8 housing, claiming taxpayers pay more taxes to support these people.
Captain Bentsen remembered his past efforts to evict Section 8 renters, and how it took years to discover a criminal charge for which he could arrest them.
Under the ordinance’s authority, HPD broadly enforced the crime-free rental program targeting Black and Latino tenants residing in neighborhoods where mostly minorities lived, the DOJ determined.
Before the ordinance was adopted, DOJ determined HPD, through captain Bentsen, currently Hesperia’s City Manager, contributed substantial resources and support to assist Hesperia in preparing to implement the program.
DOJ established HPD Captain Nils Bentsen manipulated the data to justify the need for the City of Hesperia’s “crime free” rental program. Former Hesperia City Manager Mike Podegracz recalled since 2014, captain Bentsen promoted the ordinance.
BENTSEN NEW STRATEGY Link:
Bentsen testified in uniform at meetings over a six-month period, where he promoted the program, claiming a third of 911 calls and a large percentage of multiple response citations originated at rental properties, and from 2012 through 2014, nine out of 10 homicides transpired at rental properties.
DOJ determined Bentsen intentionally exaggerated crime statistics by adding alarm calls to falsely claim 80 percent of multiple response citations, and inflated homicide statistics for rental properties.
DOJ found HPD took affirmative action prior to the adoption of the ordinance, planning an internal enforcement unit, and purchasing crime-free tracking software.
A property manager cautioned the crime-free program would infringe on civil rights. Realtors expressed concern the program would divert resources from law enforcement’s protection of the public.
A representative of Fair Housing Council of Riverside opined the ordinance would diminish law enforcement’s effectiveness, unfairly impact landlords, clash with Hesperia’s fair housing requirements, and harm tenants most in need of police services.
The California Apartment Association complained ordinance provisions were unconstitutional, conflicted with state law, and placed landlords at risk of fair housing violations and unwarranted evictions.
Landlords questioned the legality of the addendum, citing inadequate tenant protections, and appeared to discriminate against the city’s unwanted renters.
Despite concerns, the Hesperia City Council adopted the Crime-Free Rental Ordinance, placing its enforcement in the hands of HPD to determine which tenants would be evicted.
DOJ concluded HPD regularly evicted tenants without conviction or court judgment, even a 911-call for service, a negative law enforcement action, multiple response citation, or multiple calls for a noise disturbance resulted in evictions.
HPD insisted entire families be evicted over conduct of one individual, evicted victims of domestic violence protected under law, and tenants with no evidence of criminal activity, DOJ discovered.
BENTSEN RESPONSE FAIR HOUSING Link:
DOJ cited the eviction of a woman and her three children after she reported her husband beating her. HPD asserted it was a violation If the domestic partner reappeared.
DOJ calculated under the ordinance, HPD evicted 96.3% of tenants and 96.9% of households located in Census blocks with the most minority residents, representing 79% of rental households in Hesperia.
DOJ concluded Hesperia and HPD knowingly evicted mostly Black and Latino tenants, discriminated based on national origin, and deprived minority tenants of their right to reside in Hesperia.
In their answer, SBC, SBCSD and the City of Hesperia (Defendants) denied DOJ’s claim their objective was discriminatory, or that their remarks revealed their goal to revert demographic percentages.
They acknowledged remarks by Blewett, Leonard, Schmidt, and Holland, as depicted by DOJ, were correct, that Bentson was present at the meeting, and testimony about renters moving to Hesperia from the 323 area code.
They conceded council member Leonard’s remarks claiming the ordinance would fix Hesperia’s Section 8 housing and Captain Bentson’s recall of efforts to find criminal charges to evict people from Section 8 housing.
While denying Bentson and city council members degraded minority tenants or recipients of Section 8 rental assistance.
SBC, SBCSD, and Hesperia rejected claims Hesperia was the recipient of resources and assistance from SBCSD ahead of time to prepare for the ordinance, or HPD Captain Bentson promoted the ordinance, while admitting Bentson testified in uniform in support prior to adoption.
The Defendants refuted Bentson exaggerated the number of 911 calls, while acknowledging Bentson skewed statistics of homicides at rental properties.
Court documents showed the Defendants admitted the Hesperia City Council assigned enforcement of the ordinance to HPD, and responsibility to the police chief (SBCSD staff) to determine when to notify landlords to evict, while denying HPD had sole authority to evict.
The Defendants refuted assisting landlords in evictions, or spurring landlords to evict whole households, or directing landlords to evict domestic violence victims.
DOJ, SBC, SBCSD, and Hesperia held settlement discussions on October 14, 2021, and August 24, 2022, without reaching an agreement. On October 5, the parties informed the court a proposed settlement was reached. The settlement (consent order) was announced on December 14, 2022, and is awaiting approval by a federal judge.
The settlement places Hesperia and HPD under a five-year consent order promising substantial court-ordered relief to address the impacts of the “crime-free” and business license programs, including: a $670,000 settlement fund to restore those devastated by the program; $100,000 in civil penalties; $95,000 in funding to promote fair housing in Hesperia; $85,000 in funding for partnerships with community-based organizations, totaling $950,000.
The settlement requires notifications of ordinance changes and fee schedule to landlords and property managers; DOJ’s review and approval before adoption of certain policies, procedures and ordinances; 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 DOJ during the order’s five-year term.