Earlier this month, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law that affects the foreign ownership of real estate in Florida. The law, SB 264, imposes restrictions on real estate ownership by anyone who is “domiciled” in a “foreign country of concern” and is not a U.S. citizen or a green card holder. Foreign countries of concern are defined as Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, Iran, Syria, and North Korea, as well as China. The law does not specifically define “domicile,” but it tends to roughly mean someone’s true or primary home.
SB 264 treats China differently (and more harshly) than other foreign countries of concern. The law provides that people who are domiciled in foreign countries of concern other than China, and who are not U.S. citizens or green card holders, are generally not allowed to acquire real estate within 10 miles of a military installation or critical infrastructure facility. (The law defines a critical infrastructure facility to include structures like airports, seaports, refineries, and electrical power plants.) If they own property in the 10-mile zone that they acquired before July 1, 2023, they can continue to hold that property, but they cannot acquire any further real estate in the 10-mile zone.
A limited exception applies to people who have valid non-tourist visas or who have been granted asylum. They can purchase one piece of residential real estate if it is less than two acres and not within five miles of a military installation. People who fit within this exception or who acquired real estate in the 10-mile zone before July 1, 2023 must register their property with the state.
A separate section of SB 264 imposes tougher restrictions on people who are domiciled in China and who are not U.S. citizens or green card holders. It prevents them from acquiring virtually any real estate in Florida, unless they fit within the exception described above. If they own property that they acquired before July 1, 2023, they can continue to hold that property, but they cannot acquire any further real estate in Florida. People who fit within the exception or who acquired real estate in Florida before July 1, 2023 must register their property with the state.
The section of the law specific to China imposes especially harsh penalties for violations. A Chinese person could face a felony charge, potentially leading to up to five years in prison. Meanwhile, someone who sells real estate to a Chinese person could face a first-degree misdemeanor charge, potentially leading to up to a year behind bars.
The ACLU is now spearheading a lawsuit against this law. It filed a complaint last week in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, a federal trial court. The plaintiffs assisted by the ACLU consist of four Chinese citizens living in Florida and a real estate firm that works with Chinese and Chinese-American clients. The ACLU argues that the law echoes exclusionary laws from the 19th and early 20th centuries that have been repealed or struck down. It urges the federal court to strike down this law for violating equal protection and due process principles under the U.S. Constitution. In addition, the ACLU claims that the law interferes with federal authority over foreign affairs and national security.
The plaintiffs have asked the court for a declaratory judgment stating that the Florida law is invalid. They also want the court to issue an injunction preventing the law from being enforced against them. (An injunction is a court order that tells someone to do or stop doing something.) Whoever loses at the trial court level may appeal the result to the Eleventh Circuit, which is the federal appellate court for Florida.
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