Lawsuit claims Desantis’s property ownership restrictions violates Fair Housing Act

Almost exactly a year after Florida lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a measure to restrict property ownership by people from China and six other countries, housing and real-estate groups Monday filed a federal lawsuit alleging it is discriminatory.

The lawsuit, filed in Miami, contends that the law violates the federal Fair Housing Act and part of the Florida Constitution.

It came after four people and a real-estate broker filed a lawsuit last year challenging restrictions focused on people from China, including arguing that the law violates equal-protection rights and the federal Fair Housing Act. That lawsuit is pending at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case filed Monday is broader, as it also applies to restrictions placed on people from Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria — each of which Florida calls a “foreign country of concern.”

The property restrictions apply to people who are “domiciled” in a foreign country of concern and are not citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. That can include, for example, people in the U.S. on student visas.

DeSantis and other supporters approved the restrictions while citing a need, at least in part, to curb the influence of the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party in Florida.

But Monday’s lawsuit disputed such arguments and alleged the law is “based on stereotyped and xenophobic generalizations and is transparently motivated by discrimination against people from the seven targeted countries based on their national origin.” It said the Fair Housing Act bars discrimination on the basis of national origin in the sale of residential property.

“A basic analysis of the scope of the bill demonstrates that the bill restricts the property and ownership rights of individuals who do not pose national security threats,” the lawsuit said. “Individuals subject to the law from one of the seven targeted countries who are legally living, studying or working in the United States on valid nonimmigrant visas are prohibited from owning or purchasing real property in Florida with very limited exceptions.”

The Republican-controlled Legislature overwhelmingly passed the bill (SB 364) on May 4, 2023, and DeSantis signed the measure four days later.

The bill, with limited exceptions, prevents people from the seven countries from buying property within 10 miles of military installations or “critical infrastructure” facilities, such as power plants, water-treatment facilities, airports and seaports. It also includes more-specific restrictions aimed at blocking people domiciled in China from purchasing property in Florida.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the National Fair Housing Alliance, Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence, Inc., the Fair Housing Center of the Greater Palm Beaches, the Asian Real Estate Association of America and King Realty Advisors LLC, a real-estate brokerage. They are represented by Miami attorney J. Courtney Cunnningham and lawyers from the firm Relman Colfax, PLLC, Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the National Fair Housing Alliance.

The defendants are Florida Secretary of Commerce J. Alex Kelly, Florida Real Estate Commission Chairwoman Patricia Fitzgerald and state attorneys from across Florida who would be involved in prosecuting criminal violations of the law.

In addition to alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act, the lawsuit contends that the restrictions violate part of the Florida Constitution that says all “natural persons, female and male alike, are equal before the law” and have rights, including the right “to acquire, possess and protect property.” The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to block enforcement of the law.

In the case filed last year challenging the restrictions on people from China, a panel of the Atlanta-based federal appeals court heard arguments last month.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor in August denied a request from the plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction against the law. But a panel of the appeals court in February ruled that the restrictions are likely trumped by federal law and blocked enforcement against two plaintiffs who had been in the midst of real-estate transactions.

The panel issued a partial preliminary injunction that will remain in place until the underlying issues in the appeal are decided. Those underlying issues were argued during the April hearing before a separate panel.

By Jim Saunders