Community members warned lawmakers that the bill was discriminatory
Chinese citizens who live and work in Florida have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a law recently signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis restricting any “foreign principal” from China or six other “countries of concern” from purchasing property in the state.
The suit contends that the law, set to go into effect on July 1, will codify and expand housing discrimination against people of Asian descent in violation of the U.S. Constitution and Fair Housing Act.
The federal lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida, Tallahassee division.
The ACLU of Florida and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed the lawsuit in coordination with the Chinese American Legal Defense Alliance on behalf of four citizens of the People’s Republic of China who lawfully reside in Florida, as well as Multi-Choice Realty, a real estate brokerage that primarily serves Chinese and Chinese American clients.
The complaint lists Florida Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, acting Florida Secretary of the Department of Economic Opportunity Meredith Ivey, and Florida Real Estate Commission Chair Patricia Fitzgerald as defendants. Their agencies are charged with enforcing the law.
The legislation (SB 264) restricts ownership of real estate by Chinese buyers and individuals from the other countries of interest within 10 miles of a military installation or critical infrastructure, with some exceptions.
Foreign principals who already own property within those zones must register with the Florida departments of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Economic Opportunity. Failure to file a “timely registration” is subject to a civil penalty of $1,000 for each day the registration is late and may result in a lien being placed on the property for unpaid penalties.
The House language was co-sponsored by Miami Republican David Borrero and Palm Beach County Democrat Katherine Waldron and received bipartisan support in both chambers. In the House, nearly half of the Democratic Caucus joined all of the Republicans in supporting the measure.
But the bill was severely criticized by Chinese Americans throughout the state, including dozens who testified in person against the bill during one committee meeting, with many of them expressing concern about being discriminated against when purchasing real estate. Some warned it would lead to hate crimes.
“All Asian Americans will feel the stigma and the chilling effect created by this Florida law, just like the discriminatory laws did to our ancestors more than a hundred years ago,” said Clay Zhu, an attorney with DeHeng Law Offices P.C., in a written statement. “We shall not go back.”
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Similar bills have been debated in state legislatures around the country as tensions between the Chinese and U.S. governments have escalated in recent years, but Florida is the first state to pass such a measure. Waldon told the House State Affairs Committee last month that the measure was meant to be “proactive and not reactive.” She referred to recent events including the U.S. Department of Justice’s arrest of two Americans for operating a secret Chinese police station in New York City.
“Florida is taking action to stand against the United States’ greatest geopolitical threat — the Chinese Communist Party,” DeSantis said in a press release after he signed the bill earlier this month.
“I’m proud to sign this legislation to stop the purchase of our farmland and land near our military bases and critical infrastructure by Chinese agents,” he continued, adding that “we are following through on our commitment to crack down on Communist China.”
Ethnic discrimination alleged
Although the law specifies that such land cannot be purchased by foreign principals from China or Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, or Syria, the lawsuit claims that the law defines those areas are so broadly “that they bar affected individuals from being able to purchase property across much of the state.”
“The central feature of the new law is that it broadly prohibits Chinese persons from purchasing or acquiring any real property, or interests in real property, within Florida based on their race, ethnicity, color, alienage, and national,” the suit says. [Emphasis in original.]
The suit lists the specific circumstances of the four plaintiffs. None are citizens or permanent residents of the United States or members of the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party, it says.
- Yifan Shen holds a H-1B visa for nonimmigrant workers. She has lived in Florida for four years. She has signed a contract to buy a single-family home in Orlando which “appear to be located within 10 miles of a critical infrastructure facility and within five miles of a military installation.” She is set to close on the home in December, after the law’s effective date. The suit says she stands to lose all or part of her $25,000 deposit if forced to cancel her real estate contract.
- Xhiming Xu was persecuted by the Chinese government and fled to the United States. He has lived in Florida for four years. In early 2023, he signed a contract to buy a single-family home near Orlando that “appears to be located within 10 miles of a critical infrastructure facility.” The closing date is some time after July. The suit says he stands to lose all or part of his $31,250 deposit.
- Xinxi Wang holds an F-1 visa, a nonimmigrant document for international students and has lived in Florida for five years. She own a property in Miami which “appears” to be located within 10 miles of a critical infrastructure facility. She is subject to the law’s registration requirement, which the suit claims is “burdensome, discriminatory, and stigmatizing to Ms. Wang.”
- Yongxin Liu holds an HB-1 visa and has lived in Florida for four years. He is an assistant professor at a Florida university and own a property close to Daytona Beach. Because his property “appears” to be located within 10 miles of a critical infrastructure facility, the registration requirement is “burdensome, discriminatory, and stigmatizing to Mr. Liu.”
- The suit says that Liu plans to purchase a second home in Pelican Bay near a critical infrastructure facility. “Mr. Liu reasonably fears that real estate agents will refuse to represent him because he is Chinese, and that his search for real estate will be more costly, time-consuming, and burdensome as a result.”
The suit asserts that Multi-Choice Reality, a real estate brokerage that primarily serves Chinese-speaking clients in the United States and China, was involved in 74 property acquisitions in 2022, most of which for Chinese or Chinese American clients. The firm says the new law will force it to lose one-third of its business.
A spokesperson for Agriculture Commissioner Simpson said the department is “currently reviewing the lawsuit.”
The Department of Economic Opportunity did not respond to a request for comment, while the Phoenix could not reach the Real Estate Commission for comment.