The state Attorney General has sued the city of Sunnyside over what it says are civil rights violations related to the city’s crime-free rental housing program.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, alleges Sunnyside violated state and federal law on multiple occasions when landlords in the program evicted tenants without proper notice, many of whom had no proven criminal activity, and all of whom were evicted without official court orders, as required by law.

The lawsuit said the evictions displaced renters who were mainly Latino, women or families with children.

The lawsuit says that the office’s staff tried to work with Sunnyside repeatedly to remedy the issues, with the most recent attempt in March, without success.

Sunnyside City Manager Martin Casey said the city is in the process of reviewing the lawsuit, but added he was disappointed by the Attorney General’s Office’s decision to file a lawsuit.

“The city has held ongoing discussions with the AG’s office about its CFRH program since 2017,” Casey said. “The city has cooperated with the AG’s office and has worked in good faith to understand what concerns, if any, it had about the program.”

Casey said that despite the city’s requests, the AG’s office declined to provide Sunnyside with any concrete examples of alleged violations of the program.

“The lawsuit filed today still fails to identify the names of any alleged victims or dates of alleged violations,” Casey said. “This has made understanding or resolving any concerns virtually impossible.”

Crime-free housing

The Legislature authorized crime-free rental housing programs in 2010. Sunnyside started its program that year.

The programs, a collaboration between police, tenants and landlords, aim to reduce criminal activity, including drug and gang-related crimes, in rental housing units.

Sunnyside’s program allows the city to waive annual residential rental housing license fees, ranging from $100 to $750, for landlords who voluntarily participate. Any landlord who receives two or more notices from the police of criminal activity on the property also must participate in the program or remedy the situation.

In exchange for the waived fees, landlords have tenants sign a lease addendum that criminal acts by the tenant won’t be tolerated. Landlords must also comply with the Residential Landlord Tenant Act, which requires appropriate notification from landlords to tenants in the event of eviction and official court orders to start proceedings.

Landlords who fail to comply with the program requirements have to pay the licensing fee with 10 percent interest.

A dozen cities in Washington — including Yakima, Spokane, Prosser, Walla Walla and Tacoma — also have crime-free housing program agreements in place. Several others, including Moses Lake and Shelton, are considering implementing programs.

Sunnyside provides training for participating landlords and property managers, covering applications, rental agreements, resident screening and eviction proceedings. The city does not provide any additional training for police officers who enforce the program requirements.

A lawsuit

By law, landlords and law enforcement are not allowed to evict residents without due process and official court orders.

The lawsuit highlights three specific incidents, alleging Sunnyside and its police department didn’t follow the law.

In one incident, police allegedly removed a pregnant Latina woman and her three kids after a fight in the parking lot near her unit. The mother had lived at the property for seven months without incident. Police did not press charges but gave her three days to vacate the unit.

In a second incident, officers allegedly ordered a Latina woman, grandmother, and seven children from a unit after a landlord accused the mother and her son of stealing. The lawsuit notes that the accusation came after the woman had repeatedly refused sexual advances by the landlord. Police gave the family two days to vacate, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges a third couple received a three-day notice to vacate after police, with a warrant, searched their unit. At the end of that period, police returned and gave the couple eight hours to leave not only their unit but the entire city, according to the lawsuit.

In all three cases, no official court orders allegedly preceded the evictions and the families ended up homeless or hopping from hotels to relatives’ houses for up to a year. The lawsuit does not indicate which rental properties, or how many, were involved.

Casey said that the lawsuit will require that the AG’s office now disclose specific information about the allegations of unlawful activity.

“Now that the lawsuit has been filed, the AG’s office will be required to show the city what evidence of alleged wrongdoing it claims to possess but has never shared with the city,” Casey said.

The lawsuit orders Sunnyside to stop evicting people without due process and requests monetary damages, including relief for the evicted residents, and attorney costs.

Assistant Attorneys General Mitchell Riese and Neal Luna with the office’s Wing Luke Civil Rights Division are handling the case for the state.

The Attorney General’s Office is asking anyone with information about Sunnyside’s operation of its crime-free rental housing program or those impacted by the program to call 833-660-4877 and choose Option 5 from the menu.

Casey said that Sunnyside is considering all its options moving forward.

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.