Business & Economy

Bill would block California landlords from threatening tenants with deportation

A bill before the California Legislature would bar landlords from threatening tenants using their undocumented immigration status.
A bill before the California Legislature would bar landlords from threatening tenants using their undocumented immigration status.
John Williams PHD/Flickr

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A bill making its way through the state Legislature to strengthen tenant protections for immigrants without legal residency status is drawing support from advocates around the state like David Aigboboh.

A lawyer for the Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles, Aigboboh represents a man fighting eviction from the apartment he's called home for the last 30 or so years.

Aigboboh thinks he has a case: The landlord wants to give his client's unit to a resident manager, although Aigboboh said there hasn't been one before. The tenant lacks residency papers, so when the landlord's attorney asked him about his immigration status during a deposition in February, it made him "very, very scared."

"Now that that his case is going to trial, he has expressed some concern about coming to the court to testify because he has seen the stories about (Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents) appearing at court houses," Aigboboh said.

Questioning a tenant about his or her immigration status would be barred in court under A.B. 291 sponsored by Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco).

Also, landlords would be banned from threatening to report tenants to immigration agents. If that were to happen, tenants would have the backing of the law to sue the landlord.

The bill's supporters maintain the landlords are using threats against immigrant tenants as a way to get them to vacate their rent-controlled apartments, which would allow landlords to hike up the rent. 

Because the overwhelming majority of immigrants lacking status are renters, they are in an especially vulnerable position, their advocates say.

The bill, which is expected go for a vote before the state Assembly in the coming weeks, also has the backing of the state's biggest trade group for owners and property managers.  The California Apartment Association is on a list of more than 50 supporters around the state, mostly housing and legal advocates.

Debra Carlton, senior vice president of public affairs for the California Apartment Association, maintains the number of problem landlords who would use deportation threats is small.  

"These would be unscrupulous landlords that don’t subscribe to any kind of good landlord policies, so they operate on the fringes," Carlton said. 

Carlton said her group advises members to never turn over tenants’ immigration information to authorities unless ordered by a court.

Housing and legal advocates believe that a growing number of landlords have been emboldened by the Trump administration and its aggressive efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. But advocates suspect that targeted immigrants are not reporting these problems because they fear drawing further attention to themselves, making the prevalence of these incidents hard to pin down. 

Favian Gonzalez said as an organizer at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) in Los Angeles, he's gotten a handful of reports this year of undocumented tenants threatened by landlords.

"This political climate is making us kind of keep an eye out now," Gonzalez said.