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Lancaster complaint accuses Los Angeles County of bias in housing

Officials say the housing authority favors blacks for Section 8 vouchers and markets the city to them. The agency's chief says deciding where to live is up to recipients of the federal aid for the needy.

March 15, 2012|By Ann M. Simmons, Los Angeles Times

Officials in Lancaster filed a complaint Wednesday against Los Angeles County and its housing authority, charging race-based housing discrimination.

The complaint, which officials said was the prelude to a possible class action suit, alleges that the agency unlawfully favors African Americans in granting vouchers under Section 8 of the Federal Housing Act.

The authority, officials allege, discriminates against other eligible groups and its actions constitute "unlawful and discriminatory racial steering practices that essentially coerce blacks to move to Lancaster, leaving the city with a disproportionate share of blacks on federal housing assistance."

Sean Rogan, executive director of the county Community Development Commission/Housing Authority, said his agency was aware of the complaint but hadn't seen it.

He defended the agency's record. "Our mission is to provide affordable, decent, and safe housing to Los Angeles County residents, and we do so in a fair and equitable manner in accordance with [federal housing] regulations and do not discriminate," Rogan said in an emailed response.

Lancaster officials charge that while the city is home to fewer than 2% of the county's population, it has one of the largest per capita Section 8 populations in the housing authority's jurisdiction.

About 15% of the 23,000 Section 8 vouchers administered by the county are being used in Lancaster, according to the complaint. City officials say that at least 70% of Lancaster's housing subsidy recipients are African American, compared with around 14% who are Latino. Blacks account for a little more than 20% of Lancaster's 157,000 residents, while Latinos make up about 38%.

Rogan disputed the figures, saying that 2,193 holders of Section 8 vouchers live in Lancaster, out of 21,969 countywide, making Lancaster's share about 10%. Those voucher holders, he said, "have come from various housing authorities over several years," not just the county's. He was unable to provide the number of vouchers his agency had granted to tenants now living in Lancaster.

The county agency has highlighted advantages such as lower rent and Section 8-friendly landlords to market their city and neighboring Palmdale, Lancaster officials say.

"They've been promoting the Antelope Valley to poor, sick people," said Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris. "What they've been telling them is that you get more bang for your buck in Lancaster and Palmdale. What they don't tell [them] is that the health facilities aren't there, the support facilities aren't there."

Rogan said the voucher program "is based on choice, and information is provided to applicants that they can choose where to live."

Lancaster's complaint comes on the heels of a decision by the county Board of Supervisors to stop funding additional housing investigators for Lancaster and Palmdale, where officials were hit last year with a lawsuit for allegedly targeting nonwhite recipients of federal housing subsidies for eviction and harassment.

The supervisors' action came amid legal challenges by civil rights organizations and an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. Palmdale agreed to settle the lawsuit. Lancaster has vowed to defend itself.

Lancaster's complaint charges that Section 8 tenants have overburdened the city's resources. City officials say there is a correlation between the concentration of Section 8 rental units and crime.

The complaint also slams the county's alleged failure to adequately fund health services in the Antelope Valley, leaving many Section 8 participants, who lack insurance coverage, without sufficient options for care.

ann.simmons@latimes.com

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