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Lawsuit targets L.A. Housing Authority

Lawyers say the city illegally cut the amount of Section 8 rent subsidies for the poor.

January 17, 2007|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

A coalition of public interest law firms and civil rights groups Tuesday filed a class-action lawsuit against the Los Angeles Housing Authority, charging that the city agency broke the law when it effectively raised the rent for more than 20,000 poor residents.

In 2004, reeling from financial mismanagement that includes allegations that employees committed fraud and embezzlement, the Housing Authority decided to reduce Section 8 rent subsidies by about $121 per month per family, according to public interest lawyers.

Lawyers for tenants say it is outrageous for the department to make poor people pay more because the agency failed to manage its finances.

"You are putting poor people at high risk of becoming homeless," said Louis Rafti, an attorney with the nonprofit firm Public Counsel. He said he believes many families may have been evicted because they could not make the higher payments.

But Rudy Montiel, the agency's new executive director, said the increases were done at the request of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the Section 8 program. "The previous administration did this in complete compliance with federal regulations," he said.

The lawsuit affects about 23,000 of the about 100,000 tenants in the Section 8 program. That program gives tenants vouchers for the difference between what they can afford and what their landlords charge.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, said the city was required to give tenants a year's notice before decreasing their subsidy, but that the agency "did not make any meaningful attempt to comply," instead sending tenants a "nondescript" flier that "failed to convey any useful information."

Montiel disputed that. "Tenants received multiple notices and were provided precise information," he said.

Among the named plaintiffs are a 53-year-old disabled man who suffers from HIV/AIDS whose rent payment increased from $231 to $342, and a single mother whose payment went up 177%, forcing her to choose between rent and food for her daughter, according to the suit.

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of challenges facing the agency. Last year, it sued its former executive director and one of his top deputies, charging that it could not account for more than $70 million in federal funds.

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jessica.garrison@latimes.com

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