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Florida law restricting ownership of property by nationals of seven states leads to discrimination lawsuit for second time

A Florida law banning certain property ownership by nationals of seven states harkens back to the days of housing discrimination.  (Florida Memory)
A Florida law banning certain property ownership by nationals of seven states harkens back to the days of housing discrimination. (Florida Memory)

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

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

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

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

The ownership restrictions apply to people who are “domiciled” in a foreign country of care and are not citizens or permanent residents of the US. For example, these could be people in the US with a student visa.

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

But Monday’s lawsuit disputed such arguments, claiming the law is “based on stereotypical and xenophobic generalizations and transparently motivated by discrimination against people from the seven targeted countries on the basis of their national origin.” According to the report, the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on national origin in the sale of housing.

“A basic analysis of the bill’s scope shows that the bill restricts the property and ownership rights of individuals who do not pose a threat to national security,” the lawsuit said. “Individuals subject to the law of any of the seven targeted countries and who legally live, study, or work in the United States with valid non-immigrant visas are prohibited from owning or purchasing real estate 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, bans people from the seven countries from purchasing real estate within 10 miles of military installations or “critical infrastructure” facilities, such as power plants, water treatment plants, airports and seaports. It also includes more specific restrictions intended to prevent people living in China from purchasing real estate 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 attorneys from the firm Relman Colfax, PLLC, Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the National Fair Housing Alliance.

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

In addition to the alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act, the lawsuit alleges that the restrictions violate a section of the Florida Constitution, which states that all “natural persons, whether women or men, are equal before the law” and have rights including right “to acquire, possess and protect property.” The plaintiffs are asking for 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 the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction against the law. But an appeals court panel ruled in February that the restrictions are likely exceeded by federal law and blocked enforcement against two plaintiffs who were in the middle of real estate transactions.

The panel issued a partial preliminary injunction that will remain in effect until the underlying issues in the appeal are decided. These underlying issues were discussed before a separate panel at the April hearing.

–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida

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