The Golden State is kicking off the new year with a bang. A new law, effective Jan. 1, prohibits cities and counties from enacting ordinances that require landlords to check the immigration or citizenship status of their residents, and likewise bans landlords from asking their residents' status. The ban is the first—and only—in the country to preclude anti-immigrant ordinances at the local level.

The law received a loud round of applause from California multifamily owners and managers, who are relieved to be eliminated from the illegal immigration equation. “The new law is very positive because it means the apartment industry is not being pressed to serve as auxiliary INS deputies by overzealous city councils,” says Jack Gardner, president and CEO of the John Stewart Co., a San Francisco-based affordable housing developer and manager.

Steve Heimler, principal of Dallas-based property management firm Riverstone Residential, which handles about 22,000 units in the state, agrees. “It's not our place to enforce the social policy that the government is not willing to do,” he says. “This law is critical, especially in a state like California where there are so many undocumented people. It can have a serious affect on the [multifamily] industry.”

A new California law barring inquiries into a resident's citizenship status comes on the heels of nationwide pro-immigration rallies, such as this one in Scranton, Pa.
A new California law barring inquiries into a resident's citizenship status comes on the heels of nationwide pro-immigration rallies, such as this one in Scranton, Pa.

The law, sponsored by the Apartment Association, California Southern Cities, and backed by statewide apartment associations and civil rights organizations, follows in the wake of the highly publicized Escondido, Calif., anti-immigrant ordinance. In October 2006, the city council voted to subject landlords to fines, even jail time, for not removing illegal immigrants from their properties within 10 business days. The controversial ruling was challenged in court, and in December 2006, the city agreed not to enforce the ordinance. Similar rulings have been enacted—and typically struck down—across the country, in locales from Texas to New Jersey. The most high-profile of these cases: Last year, a federal court ruled against an ordinance in Hazelton, Pa., that sought to punish landlords and employers for doing business with undocumented immigrants.

This bill curbs future anti-immigrant ordinances from popping up in California. “A state bill like this is a good idea to prevent us from having to fight these battles piecemeal, one city at a time, one county at a time,” says David Blair-Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, which led the charge against the Escondido decree. “It's expensive and time-consuming to have to litigate every single one, and it was appropriate for the state government to step in and tell cities and counties to stop playing in the federal sandbox.”

Still, the million-dollar question is, will other states follow California's lead? “I tend to doubt it,” says Michael Levinson, a partner at the San Diego office of Cooley Godward Kronish, a private law firm that helped challenge the Escondido ordinance. “I think California is more sensitive to trying to find some kind of balance between fairness and the complaints that a lot of people have about the situation with illegal aliens. I can imagine other states may not have quite that sensitivity and understanding. Our legislature tends to be a bit more liberal than most other states.” Then again, California is the ultimate trendsetter.