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Lancaster's Section 8 mistake

The city's latest attack on the program overseen by the L.A. County Housing Authority is a perversion of justice.

March 25, 2012
  • Mayor of Lancaster R. Rex Parris is shown in 2011, speaking at a press conference at the University of Antelope Valley in Lancaster.
Mayor of Lancaster R. Rex Parris is shown in 2011, speaking at a press conference… (Los Angeles Times )

For months, the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale have been the focus of complaints and a civil rights lawsuit alleging that city officials and city housing investigators harass minority residents on public housing assistance in an effort to drive them out. Now officials in Lancaster have turned the tables, filing a housing discrimination complaint against the Los Angeles County Housing Authority saying that it is the county, which oversees the Section 8 housing aid program, that is in fact causing the problems.

According to the city's complaint, the housing authority engages in "racial steering" of low-income African American recipients of housing aid into Lancaster, an Antelope Valley city in the northern stretches of the county, without making them aware of the city's overburdened healthcare system or the limited employment opportunities in the area. As a result, the complaint contends, 70% of residents in Lancaster using Section 8 housing vouchers are black, and their migration into Lancaster has, according to Mayor R. Rex Parris, caused demographics to change and neighborhoods to reach a racial tipping point. Once integrated neighborhoods, he says, are now increasingly segregated.

The city of Lancaster does have more Section 8 residents than any other city or town under the jurisdiction of the county housing authority. But county housing officials say that is not their doing. People who receive Section 8 vouchers are free to go wherever they want (although not all communities offer the sort of housing that would be affordable under the program's formulas). And federal regulations bar county officials from pushing recipients toward any particular community, or even discussing its pros and cons, according to Emilio Salas, deputy executive director of the county housing agency.

The more likely reason that Section 8 participants have clustered in Lancaster is that it offers roomier housing at more affordable prices. (Why else would someone trek to a wind-swept high desert town 70 miles from downtown Los Angeles?)

We're all for integration. And we have no reason to doubt the mayor when he says he has overburdened resources and challenges in balancing the needs of all his constituents. But for the city of Lancaster, which has been repeatedly accused of trying to intimidate and drive out its Section 8 residents, to now turn around and use anti-discrimination laws to continue that campaign is a perversion of justice. If Lancaster officials want to be taken at their word that all they care about is having a safe and healthy city population, they need to find other avenues besides federal complaints and aggressive housing investigators for making that happen.

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