As I write this, members of California’s Reparations Task Force are meeting in Oakland to discuss exactly who might be eligible for compensation under a reported plan that could see Black folks in the state receive as much as $225,000 apiece. Those awards, the chair of the committee has said, would be specifically tied to the legacy of housing discrimination—though there are many other historical public policy issues that have contributed to Cali’s racial wealth gap—in the state with the country’s most expensive housing costs.
And while that committee meets in the Bay area, a story out of southern Cali underscores exactly why its work is necessary. The city of Hesperia, in San Bernadino County, just signed a consent order with the Justice Department acknowledging that the local government and sheriff’s department had been enforcing a housing policy that forced hundreds of Black and Hispanic residents into homelessness, the Associated Press reports.
Hesperia’s policy, passed in 2015, was a blatantly racially-discriminatory solution to a problem that didn’t exist,” according to Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke. The policy “meant evictions of entire families for conduct involving one tenant or even guests or estranged family members. It meant evictions of the survivors of domestic violence. It meant evictions in the absence of concrete and real evidence of criminal activity.”
Specifically, Hesperia’s ordinance, according to the consent order, was nothing more than a codified effort to keep Blacks and Hispanics out of the city, using language about crime as a proxy for race and local law enforcement to do the dirty work of tossing families out and onto the street. The AP explains how the racist policy played out:
One city councilmember said the ordinance allowed landlords to remove blight and “compared it to ‘calling an exterminator out to kill cockroaches,’” Clarke said. Another councilmember said it was to correct a “demographical problem” and the people targeted were “of no value to this community.”
The ordinance required landlords to submit prospective tenants’ names to the sheriff for background checks so they could deny housing to anyone with a criminal record, prosecutors said. The sheriff, in turn, would notify landlords if tenants had been in trouble, regardless of whether there was an arrest or conviction, and pressured property owners to evict people who had run-ins with the law.
Unfortunately, what Hesperia officials did wasn’t all that rare; both the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act, which the city violated with its policy, exist specifically because municipalities around the country had a history of enacting racist housing policies. But the Justice Department says this is the first time in history that a local government has been hit with a consent order like this one, aimed at barring local officials and law enforcement from continuing the problematic policy or enacting new ones.
In the meantime, that committee meeting in Oakland might want to budget a few more bucks, because if Hesperia is any indication, there’s a whole lot of recompense owed to Black Californians.