THE anonymous tip came in over a special hotline: Someone was smoking marijuana on the balcony of Rachel Baker's government-subsidized apartment.
On a recent morning, Lee D'Errico, a Los Angeles County Housing Authority investigator, bounded up the stairs of the sprawling two-story complex in Lancaster, half a dozen armed sheriff's deputies on his heels.
D'Errico rapped on the door of Baker, a 28-year-old single mother of three. She took one look at the group on her stairs, ordered her children into a bedroom and moved aside.
Then the officers, who had no warrant, searched the home. Within minutes, they discovered a half-smoked marijuana cigarette under a couch cushion -- enough, D'Errico told Baker, to terminate her subsidy under the federal Section 8 program.
"What?" Baker said, sobbing. "I didn't know it was there. Otherwise, I wouldn't have let you in."
It was another fruitful investigation for the housing authority in the Antelope Valley, where officials have launched one of the most aggressive campaigns in the nation to stamp out unauthorized or illegal behavior in federally subsidized housing.
Baker's boyfriend, who said he was there to watch the children while she went to work, admitted that the marijuana was his. But the Section 8 program has zero tolerance for drug use.
The crackdown, initiated by local political leaders with the support of county Supervisor Mike Antonovich in mid-2004, has been fueled by the anger and fear of homeowners in the Antelope Valley. Many associate rising crime, gang violence and declining property values with an influx of poor and mostly black Section 8 tenants from South Los Angeles.
"We work hard for what we've earned," said John Alvarez, who said his house was burglarized by teenagers on Section 8. "And we don't want that mentality in our neighborhood."
More than 350 families have lost their subsidies in the last two years, which is more than 10% of the rolls in the Antelope Valley. Some have been left homeless.
Section 8 recipients and their attorneys say that civil rights are being violated as housing authority investigators team with law enforcement to conduct unannounced searches without warrants. People who see deputies massed at their door are effectively coerced into letting them in, the lawyers argue. Adding to the show of force, sometimes, are masked officers with guns drawn, looking for felons in violation of their parole. The various agencies work together.
Critics say the campaign is unfair because it is selective: The Antelope Valley is home to only about 15% of Section 8 recipients managed by the housing authority, but 60% of the agency's subsidy terminations occur there, according to a Times analysis.
The crackdown has set off a sometimes dramatic social conflict, pitting neighbor against neighbor, tenant against homeowner, and, often, blacks against whites. Charges of lawlessness have been met with countercharges of racism and vigilantism.
Antonovich says race has nothing to do with it: It is aimed only at criminals and rule breakers and will make room for honest people who have waited years for a subsidy. His office, which has allocated $284,000 to match local government contributions, contends that officials are taking a judicious approach: Only half of the families investigated this year have actually lost their subsidies.
Other civic leaders acknowledge that innocent people might be harmed in the effort but see it as an unfortunate consequence of a crucial undertaking.
"Our community is dying," said R. Rex Parris, a local lawyer and civic leader who organized an anti-crime meeting this spring. "The reality is we're going to have to suffer a certain amount of injustice to fix this."
To Sylvia Franklin, a black single mother of three who says she lost her subsidy unfairly, the message is simple. "They don't want us here," she said.
Lots of housing, cheap
Compared with the Los Angeles Basin, housing in the Antelope Valley is plentiful and cheap. Walled-off new developments of stucco houses and spindly trees rise out of the desert scrub and stretch to the horizon.
The dusty desert towns are among the few places in Los Angeles County where people without great means can buy a new house. The trade-off for many is a brutal commute of 140 miles round trip to jobs in Los Angeles -- one measure of their desire for a piece of suburbia.
The housing deals also attracted other customers: Section 8 landlords.
In much of L.A. County, landlords complain that payments under Section 8 fall below market rates, but in Lancaster and Palmdale, they are a boon. The government allows landlords to charge up to $1,874 for a three-bedroom house. Some have two-car garages, vaulted ceilings, modern kitchens and swimming pools. Under Section 8, poor tenants pay about a third of their income in rent; the federal government pays the rest directly to the landlord.