Suit asserts that city unlawfully evicted tenants without court order
SPOKANE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Sunnyside, asserting that the city has unlawfully and repeatedly used its Crime Free Rental Housing Program to force tenants out of their homes without evidence that they engaged in criminal activity, and without proper notice or court orders in violation of state and federal law. Despite multiple communications between the Attorney General’s Office and city leaders, the city refuses to come into compliance with the law.
Most of the unlawfully evicted residents have been Latinx, women or families with children.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, raises claims under the federal Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act, and asserts the city violated the U.S. and Washington state constitutions’ guarantee of due process, the Washington Law Against Discrimination and the state’s Residential Landlord Tenant Act.
“Regardless of public policy goals, city governments can’t sidestep the law and unlawfully evict families,” Ferguson said. “Families, including those with children, lost their homes as a result of Sunnyside’s unlawful actions. That is wrong, which is why my office is taking action to defend the civil rights of residents.”
Ferguson’s lawsuit outlines several examples where Sunnyside officials unlawfully forced residents from their homes.
Sunnyside police allegedly removed a pregnant Latina mother with three children after a fight occurred in the parking lot of her building The mother had lived at the residence for seven months without incident, and no charges were pressed against her. Though no court eviction proceedings were initiated against the mother, Sunnyside police gave her and her children three days to vacate the apartment. The family was forced to move between a hotel and a relative’s home, and was without permanent housing for more than a year.
In another incident, Sunnyside police kicked out a Latina mother, a grandmother and seven children without a judicial eviction order. After the mother allegedly repeatedly refused the landlord’s sexual advances, the landlord accused the mother and her son of theft. Although no eviction proceedings were ever filed, three officers came to the home and ordered the family to leave within two days. The family was homeless for a while, and had to live apart for over a year.
In a third incident detailed in Ferguson’s complaint, police ordered a landlord to send a couple a three-day notice to vacate their home after the home was searched pursuant to a search warrant. No court eviction proceedings were initiated. Three days later, police came to the home and ordered the couple to leave by midnight of that day — giving the pair about eight hours to move out. Further, the police ordered the couple to leave the City of Sunnyside entirely. The couple was homeless for more than a year.
From the start of its investigation into Sunnyside’s operation of its Crime Free Rental Housing Program, the Attorney General’s Office has repeatedly expressed concern that eviction practices under the program violated state and federal law. Over the course of its investigation, the AGO has had multiple communications and meetings with city leaders, most recently in March 2019, in an effort to work with the city to bring its police practices in compliance with state and federal law. These meetings were unsuccessful.
Crime Free Rental Housing Programs
In 2010, the Legislature authorized local governments to create Crime Free Rental Housing Programs within their jurisdictions through a partnership between police, residents and landlords. The program is intended to help reduce crime, including drug and gang activity, in rental housing, while outlining certain requirements local governments must follow when implementing the program.
Sunnyside established its Crime Free Rental Housing Program the same year. Under its program, landlords require residents to sign an addendum to their rental or lease agreement that provides that if crimes are permitted or committed by the resident on or near the property, that constitutes a breach of the agreement.
Sunnyside waives a required annual residential rental housing license fee of between $100 and $750 for landlords who voluntarily participate in the program. If program landlords fail to comply, the city reimposes the fee plus 10 percent interest.
According to the city’s municipal code, when the police department determines that a tenant has committed or permitted a crime on or near the rental property, the police department is required to issue a notice of noncompliance to the landlord. The landlord then has five days to deliver a “comply or quit” notice to the resident outlining the alleged conduct that violated the agreement, including copies of any available public records detailing the conduct.
In addition, the process must comply with the Residential Landlord Tenant Act, including providing appropriate notice to tenants. To seek an eviction order, a landlord must go to court, and is not allowed to attempt to remove the tenant themselves, or ask law enforcement to do it for them without a court order. Under the RLTA, a police department’s role in evicting tenants is limited to serving the court-issued eviction notice.
Ferguson asserts that the city enforced its Crime Free Rental Housing Program in violation of these legal requirements.
Anyone with information to share about Sunnyside’s operation of its Crime Free Rental Housing Program, including anyone impacted by the program, should contact the Attorney General’s Office by calling (833) 660-4877 and choosing option 5 from the menu.
In addition to forcing the City of Sunnyside and its employees and representatives to stop their unlawful conduct, Ferguson’s lawsuit seeks monetary damages, including relief for unlawfully evicted residents and attorney costs and fees.
Assistant Attorneys General Mitchell Riese and Neal Luna with the AGO’s Wing Luke Civil Rights Division are handling the case for Washington.
Ferguson created the Wing Luke Civil Rights Division in 2015 to protect the rights of all Washington residents by enforcing state and federal anti-discrimination laws. Ferguson named the division for Wing Luke, who served as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Washington in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He went on to become the first person of color elected to the Seattle City Council and the first Asian-American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.firstname.lastname@example.org