Yakima Valley city used police to illegally evict Latinx tenants, says Washington state attorney general

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Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has accused the Yakima Valley city of Sunnyside of using the city’s police force to illegally evict Latinx tenants, women and families from rental housing. 

Among the tenants allegedly pushed out of housing by Sunnyside police without formal eviction proceedings were a pregnant Latina mother with three children and another Latinx family with seven children, according to a new federal civil-rights lawsuit filed Tuesday by Ferguson’s office.

Sunnyside is 88% Hispanic, according to the latest census figures.

On Tuesday night, Sunnyside Mayor Julia Hart sent a statement saying that the city was “disappointed” in the attorney general’s decision to file a lawsuit and had worked “in good faith to understand what concerns, if any” the office had.

The attorney general’s complaint stems from Sunnyside’s crime-free rental-housing program. The Legislature authorized local governments to create crime-free rental-housing programs in 2010, and since then, they’ve proliferated across the state, from Tacoma to Walla Walla.

Under Sunnyside’s program, according to the attorney general’s lawsuit, participating landlords require tenants to sign a lease or rental addendum acknowledging that if crimes are committed or allowed on or near the property, the tenants will be found in violation of the lease. 

In practice, housing and legal advocates say that crime-free rental-housing programs both undercut public safety and disproportionately impact communities of color and survivors of domestic violence.

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Emily Werth, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois who has worked on issues related to crime-free rental-housing programs, said that these kinds of programs counter their intended purpose. “They tell people, don’t call the police when you need help, because if the police come to your property, you may be the one who loses housing,” she said. 

Washington state Assistant Attorney General Mitchell Riese said his office started looking into crime-free rental-housing programs across the state in early 2017 because of issues reported in similar programs across the country.

Some jurisdictions voluntarily made changes to their programs after being contacted by the state attorneys, according to the attorney general’s civil-rights division chief Colleen Melody, but not Sunnyside.

In the statement sent to The Seattle Times, the city of Sunnyside said the Attorney General’s Office had “failed to provide the City with any concrete examples of alleged violations of the program” and noted that the lawsuit filed on Tuesday did not name names or provide dates.

“This has made understanding or resolving any concerns virtually impossible,” the statement read.

The Washington attorney general’s lawsuit against Sunnyside claims the city’s program denied tenants due process, discriminated against Latinx tenants, women and families, and evicted tenants because they were survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault. 

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The Attorney General’s Office said it had communicated with Sunnyside officials multiple times over its concerns starting in November 2017, but that the meetings were unsuccessful.

In one case cited in the complaint, police allegedly removed a pregnant Latina mother and her three children from housing after a fight broke out near her home. No charges against the mother or eviction proceedings were filed, but police gave the family three days to leave, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit also claims that Sunnyside police ordered a Latina mother, grandmother and seven children to leave their home after the mother allegedly refused sexual advances from the landlord, who then accused the family of theft. Police told the family to leave in two days without an eviction order, according to the complaint. 

Renee Williams, staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project, said “crime-free” or “nuisance” ordinances are fairly common across the country, but that this is the first lawsuit she’s seen in which a state attorney general has gone after a jurisdiction for the program.

“I think it’s a really exciting and really positive development because I think it’s a recognition of how these laws can have very negative consequences on populations that already have a difficult time accessing housing,” Williams said.

In one high-profile lawsuit filed over “nuisance” or “crime-free” ordinances, the ACLU sued the city of Norristown, Pa., after a woman was threatened with eviction after being airlifted to the hospital for abuse suffered at the hands of her partner. The case settled and the city repealed the ordinance.  

Melody said the Attorney General’s Office was encouraging people to call in with their experiences about Sunnyside’s crime-free rental-housing program, whether they be “good, bad or otherwise.”

“We really do want to understand the full scope of the problem,” Melody said. 

The lawsuit seeks to stop the city from using police to allegedly evict tenants and win monetary damages for the tenants involved.