The Department of Justice announced last month that it is suing the city of Hesperia, California, along with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, for enforcing a nuisance ordinance that it says violates the Fair Housing Act.
According to the complaint, the city, with the help of the sheriff, enforced an “anti-crime” ordinance that required landlords who were served with notice to immediately evict tenants and their families.
Tenants were ordered to be evicted prior to criminal conviction and based on unproven allegations. This included victims of domestic violence, tenants who were not suspects, and incidents that did not occur on the property.
City officials had discretion over enforcement, and, according to the allegations, directed 96% of these eviction notices to minority neighborhoods.
The ordinance also required landlords to register every unit and provide the names of all adult tenants to the sheriff’s office for a “background” screening, obtain a criminal background check from a tenant screening company, and allow police to inspect each unit annually.
Similar anti-crime ordinances, often referred to as “nuisance” or “three-strikes” laws, have spread quickly across the country, despite considerable controversy.
A Pennsylvania ordinance that required landlords to evict tenants if police were called to a unit three times was voluntarily repealed as part of a settlement agreement with a victim of domestic violence who nearly died after police told her she could not call for help without risking eviction.
In another case, in Colorado, city police are facing repercussions, including a PR nightmare, after conducting mandatory rental inspections using drug-sniffing dogs.
Landlords are stuck between a rock and hard place when it comes to screening and managing tenants in light of these ordinances.
On the one hand, failure to comply can lead to revocation of the rental license or fines. But compliance means the added costs of evicting a tenant.
Those eviction cases are hard to prove, especially where the crime did not occur on the property, the person committing the crime was not the tenant, the person was arrested but not convicted, or where the tenant wasn’t charged with any crime. Yet, landlords not in compliance with such nuisance ordinances may face daily fines if found to be uncooperative.
To make matters worse, HUD guidelines and many new local regulations prohibit landlords from rejecting rental applicants based on arrests without convictions, which certainly includes mere allegations of criminal conduct. Landlords also cannot enforce a blanket ban on all applicants with criminal history.
In the case of a poorly crafted rental ordinance, the current landlord may not have the right to evict the tenant and the new landlord may not have the right to reject that tenant without violating the Fair Housing Act.
This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.