Fair Housing Groups Sue Florida Over Property Ownership Restrictions

The watchdog organizations are fighting a wave of state efforts to block property ownership by certain foreign buyers.

Four fair housing watchdog groups are suing the state of Florida over its new law barring buyers from certain foreign countries from purchasing property.

The National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), the Asian Real Estate Association of America (AREAA), Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence and the Fair Housing Center of the Greater Palm Beaches announced the lawsuit Monday. If the suit is successful, it could serve as a warning to other states that are looking to adopt similar so-called “alien land laws.”

An appeals court has temporarily blocked enforcement of the Florida law—which restricts property ownership for individuals and entities associated with “foreign countries of concern,” including China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria—pending the outcome of a separate legal challenge over the law’s constitutionality.

Purchasers from the seven countries are prohibited from buying agricultural land or property within 10 miles of critical infrastructure facilities or military institutions in Florida. Fair housing groups say that covers about 98.5% of all residential land in the state, effectively creating a near-total ban on Chinese citizens and noncitizens whose domicile is in China from buying property in the state, with only a few exceptions.

“Xenophobia has no place in our country,” says Noah Baron, assistant director of litigation at Advancing Justice. “This legislation echoes last century’s ‘alien land laws,’ which also restricted the property rights of Asian Americans on the basis of stereotypes and prejudice. The United States must not continue down this dangerous road.”

International buyers purchased $53.3 billion worth of U.S. residential real estate last year, according to the “2023 Profile of International Transactions in U.S. Residential Real Estate,” an annual report produced by the National Association of REALTORS®. Chinese buyers remain the largest group of foreign purchasers of U.S. real estate, accounting for $13.6 billion in residential sales volume last year. Florida—which is the top destination for foreign buyers—remains the second most common destination for buyers from China, behind only California, according to the report.

Nearly 20 other states, including Virginia, Wisconsin, Missouri, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, have adopted or are considering adopting restrictions on foreign property ownership. Last year, Texas lawmakers proposed a bill that would restrict Chinese ownership in the state. However, the bill stalled in the Texas House after facing widespread criticism.

“To deny certain people the right to own property in the United States—people who live in this country and who are here trying to become permanent U.S. citizens or working here or seeking educational opportunities—we believe this is a travesty,” NFHA President and CEO Lisa Rice said at a press conference about the Florida lawsuit. “It’s illegal and an antithesis of what we stand for in the civil rights community.”

Proponents say alien land laws are a response to growing national security concerns, claiming that foreign buyers are controlling hundreds of thousands of acres of critical agriculture land in the U.S. That could place the country’s food supply and national security interests in jeopardy, proponents argue. Last year, after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the law, he said the goal was to protect American interests from foreign threats. He argued that the Florida law could serve as a blueprint for other states.