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Suit accuses Lancaster and Palmdale of racial bias in Section 8 crackdown

Plaintiffs, including the NAACP, allege that the cities are trying to run low-income minorities out of town by conducting 'compliance checks' that can result in families losing their federal housing benefits.

June 08, 2011|By Carol J. Williams and Ann M. Simmons, Los Angeles Times
  • The cities of Lancaster and Palmdale have hired special investigators to root out fraud among recipients of federal housing benefits. The investigator's "compliance checks" are often accompanied by armed sheriff's deputies.
The cities of Lancaster and Palmdale have hired special investigators… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

Elected leaders in Lancaster and Palmdale have waged an "unrelenting war" against low-income blacks and Latinos who receive public assistance in a campaign to drive them out of the historically white Antelope Valley, civil rights lawyers alleged in a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

As many as 200 local minority families have lost their federal housing assistance each year, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and unnamed victims of the alleged harassment.

Most of the families have been cut off following surprise "compliance checks" by housing authorities and police, aimed at rooting out fraud in the federal housing assistance program known as Section 8.

Civil rights advocates say the crackdowns amount to racial discrimination, as 85% of the Section 8 households are black or Latino. Residents have also complained that the inspections often involved armed Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, which they said adds a level of intimidation to the checks.

The lawsuit says the crackdown has created a climate of fear among minorities in the Antelope Valley and may have influenced vigilante attacks and hate crimes.

Palmdale's First African Methodist Episcopal Church was firebombed in August, and garages and other property of Section 8 renters have been vandalized with graffiti including racial slurs, swastikas and "I hate Section 8." One mother of four reported in the complaint that a carload of white youths shouted racial epithets at her children and threw a bag of urine at them.

"The level of hostility in these cities as expressed and enforced by authorities is astonishing," said Catherine Lhamon, a lawyer for Public Counsel, the public-interest law firm representing the plaintiffs. Council members in the two cities "have no shame … in expressing their racial hostility."

City leaders defend their actions, saying that they stepped up the inspections in response to public concerns about crime.

Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said there is evidence that crime in Lancaster tends to "cluster around Section 8 housing." Since Lancaster began its stepped-up enforcement, crime stemming from Section 8 housing units has "dropped dramatically," Parris said.

He could not provide statistics, and officials at the Sheriff's Department said they could not immediately comment on whether there is more crime among Section 8 tenants.

Parris and other officials also said they feel inundated by the county's poor and ill-prepared to handle their needs.

"What the [county] housing authority is attempting to do is move their poor up to the suburbs so they don't have to provide them any services, such as medical or rehabilitation services," Parris said "It's a systematic conspiracy. Do I think there is racism involved? Absolutely. But I don't think it's from our end."

Palmdale Mayor James C. Ledford Jr. was equally adamant that his city's tough Section 8 enforcement practices weren't racially motivated.

"The allegation is absurd," Ledford said. "Our population demographics are quite diverse. Diversity is something that we're celebrating, not discouraging."

Palmdale recently renewed the contract for its special investigator for Section 8 fraud, whose work over the last two years has resulted in a termination of benefits for one in 12 residents in the housing assistance program. In Lancaster, which also hires its own enforcer for the federal program, one in 21 beneficiaries was cut off in 2009. The two cities accounted for 51% of terminations in L.A. County.

Sean Rogan, executive director of L.A. County's Housing Authority, would say only that the agency that administers the Section 8 program "takes very seriously all issues raised … and is reviewing the lawsuit with its counsel to investigate its allegations."

Tony Bell, assistant chief deputy for County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, said the county agreed to provide enhanced funding for investigative services in the Antelope Valley cities "to protect the integrity of the Section 8 program so that eligible recipients receive the service and fraudulent applicants are identified."

Those who claim to have been unjustly terminated contend that the two cities are trying to drive out Section 8 tenants and that the county rubber-stamps the cutoff requests.

Shanna Blackburn, who was unaware of the NAACP legal action, was receiving housing assistance in 2008 when the Palmdale enforcer showed up at her door with armed sheriff's deputies. They raided the home in search of evidence that her 17-year-old son had gang affiliations.

"They said there were some gang members at his school causing trouble and they thought he could have been with them. But the only association was that he's black. My son was a straight-A student and never in any kind of trouble," recalled Blackburn, who said she lost her benefits even though nothing was found in the raid.

Pharaoh Mitchell got housing aid after suffering a back injury in the Army that has left him unable to return to construction work. He said his family of eight was rousted in a compliance check by a dozen armed deputies last year. Mitchell, who praises the housing assistance program for giving the poor a chance to escape crime-ridden inner city projects, attributed the fruitless six-hour raid to a neighbor who called authorities reporting vague suspicions.

Many black Section 8 renters in the Antelope Valley complain that they feel unjustly branded as security threats, and have taken their concerns to the Community Action League, a local civil rights group that is a plaintiff in the suit along with the NAACP.

"This city has made the words 'Section 8' almost something that if you are connected with it, you're a criminal," V. Jesse Smith, an NAACP spokesman, said of Lancaster.

carol.williams@latimes.com

ann.simmons@latimes.com

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