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Florida's Chinese community calls for reform, repeal of law that limits property ownership

The Florida Asian American Justice Alliance hosts the unprecedented meeting Tuesday, Sep. 26, 2023, over Zoom, to discuss SB 264.
The Florida Asian American Justice Alliance hosts the unprecedented meeting Tuesday, Sep. 26, 2023, over Zoom, to discuss SB 264.

The Interests of Foreign Countries law was enacted July 1, restricting foreign purchase or ownership of Florida real estate property for citizens from "countries of concern."

Members of Florida’s Chinese community met virtually with local and national attorneys, activists, and legislators Tuesday evening to call for the repeal or reform of SB-264, a law that limits real estate owners of some foreign nationals.

The Interests of Foreign Countries law was enacted July 1, restricting foreign purchase or ownership of Florida real estate property for citizens of the People's Republic of China, the Russian Federation, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Republic of Cuba, and Venezuela. The bill was supported by state Republicans and passed by the GOP-controlled legislature.

According to the law, entities from the seven so-called “countries of concern,” including those with non-tourist visas, are limited to buying a single home, on no more than 2 acres, and located no less than 10 miles away from any military installation or critical infrastructure. Those who already owned property before the law was enacted must register by Dec. 31.

While the law applies to all seven countries, it restricts but does not ban six of them. It specifically targets Chinese nationals with separate, harsher restrictions and penalties.

“An important issue is that the Chinese Floridians who live and work here legally should not be restricted as in the bill,” said Echo King, an immigration lawyer in Orlando and one of the founders of the Florida Asian American Justice Alliance, who hosted the meeting.

Anyone caught knowingly selling to a Chinese buyer in violation of the new law could face up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine, while Chinese buyers who break the law could face felony charges of up to five years in prison and $5,000 fines. For the other countries, violators could face up to 60 days incarcerated and $500 fines.

And Chinese nationals lacking U.S. citizenship or permanent residency — a green card — or are “domiciled” in China, are outright banned from buying land or property in Florida.

Supporters have claimed the law is important for national security, listing reasons such as the Chinese surveillance balloon spotted over the U.S. in January.

“Florida is taking action to stand against the United States’ greatest geopolitical threat — the Chinese Communist Party,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a statement.

Critics have argued the law is vague, xenophobic, and demoralizing.

“This bill has made a serious impact on the Asian community in general. It honestly feels like we are all being treated differently,” said Yuyuan Zhang, an Orlando real estate agent born and raised in China.

The people

Over 100 people attended the virtual meeting organized by the FAJAA, which included local and national attorneys, activists, legislators, real estate buyers, sellers, and Florida residents on work and student visas. Most were of Chinese descent, and many said they’re already living under the consequences of SB 264.

Zhang was one of them. She said she holds a green card and lives in Orlando with her husband, a U.S. veteran, and their three young children. They’ve lived in Central Florida since 2016.

Zhang is an only child. She said her parents like to travel from China to visit her and their only grandchildren as much as they can. Due to the pandemic, however, it’s been three years.

The family was excited in the summer of 2022 when Zhang’s parents decided to buy and build a new home in Orlando so they could stay comfortably nearby during long visits. Construction on the house was about halfway through, Zhang said, when SB 264 went into effect, and they were forced to abandon the project.

Zhang’s parents are Chinese nationals, not U.S. citizens or residents, and live in China. They are banned from owning a home for themselves in Florida.

“This bill makes them feel like Chinese people are not welcome here,” Zhang said. “They wasted their time, energy, and money on a home that they cannot live in now.”

The family is heartbroken. She said this is not the American Dream she and her husband work hard for, and that the bill attacks the wrong people.

“I feel sad, and then I feel like this is racist. Why can’t Chinese (people) buy a house? What did we do?” Zhang said. “This is the longest I haven’t seen my family in my whole life. And finally, they want to purchase a house here, and now the dream just broke again.”

For Ethan Hu, a 28-year-old data analyst in Orlando, the law presents another complication. He lives a long drive away from his work office, which was no problem while the company had employees working remotely. However, that policy changed, and Hu was considering buying a condo in downtown Orlando to be closer to work — then SB 264 became a factor.

Even with his H-1B work visa, Hu said buying property feels uncertain and difficult because of all the risks involved.

“If the first version of the bill comes true, I’d no longer be able to stay here. I’d be forced to find another job,” Hu said. “I think I’m allowed to own one property for myself, so yeah, there is a chance for me to stay here, but things are getting worse because they are changing every day. Before that, America was the dream land to chase your dreams and fight for your freedom.”

Hu is not a political expert, he has two masters in computer science and tech, but he said he doesn’t see how this bill helps fight any valid concerns about the Chinese government.

“We come here, we work really hard, we learn a lot, and we pay tax, and we help the community, and we help the city. We also contribute to the country,” Hu said. “I don’t think this is the efficient way to deal with the CCP. I’m not CCP. I mean, we're already here. Basically, this is against your own people.”

 Attorney Clay Zhu shared a map created by experts, showing the land space available for trade under the premises of SB 264.
Attorney Clay Zhu shared a map created by experts, showing the land space available for trade under the premises of SB 264.

The fight

Legal experts at the meeting said their concerns lie in the unconstitutionality of the law and its lack of definitions and clarity. So far, Florida legislators have not provided a definition for the terms “domicile” or “critical infrastructure.” They have also not provided a map of the land areas that are legally available for trade under the premises of SB 264, so community members hired experts to help create a reference map.

Clay Zhu is one of the leading attorneys who filed a federal lawsuit against SB 264. He said the verbiage in the law is much too broad and vague for compliance, and that an “honest mistake” could easily land an individual on some felony charges.

“Let’s assume the validity of SB 264, how does an average person comply with it? There are many practical difficulties for people to figure out what is prohibited and what is not,” Zhu said.

Orlando-based Attorney Melissa Vickers argued Section 7 of the law is blatantly discriminatory and violates the 14th Amendment as well as HUD’s Fair Housing Act, which prohibits the discrimination of someone trying to buy housing in the U.S. based on their race, nationality, color, religion, sex, gender, marital status, or disability.

“This law alone opens you up for the possibility of having to do jail or prison time, which is extremely scary, for just purchasing a home — not doing anything illegal, not trying to do anything illegal — just for purchasing a home in Florida,” Vickers said.

Rep. Fentrice DeNell Driskell House, D-67 and House minority representative, and Rep. Anna Eskamani discussed the chances of getting the law either reformed or repealed during the next legislative session.

“Now that the consequences are felt, it provides more ammunition, if you will, to try to change the current statute,” Eskamani said. "What's become clear with this policy is that it was pushed forward based on fear, it's not actually based on any fact. It is not going to keep us safe. It does not stop any type of espionage."

In August, a federal district court judge refused to preliminarily block SB 264, after a motion was filed in the ongoing lawsuit — meaning the law is in place and effective currently.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor explained his decision.

“Contrary to plaintiffs’ arguments, the challenged law is facially neutral as to race and national origin. It would apply to a person of Chinese descent domiciled in China the same way it would apply to a person not of Chinese descent domiciled in China,” Winsor said in his 51-page decision. “Its application would never turn on a person’s race.”

The Department of Justice questioned the law’s constitutionality, calling it “unlawful” and suggesting it would not help thwart issues of national security in Florida.

Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America corps member.

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Lillian Hernández Caraballo