Civil rights activists have dropped a lawsuit against the city of Lancaster that alleged discrimination against nonwhite recipients of public housing vouchers, and agreed to a settlement that commits both sides to work together to ensure fair rental practices.
Wednesday's announcement puts to rest what had threatened to be a lengthy battle over race and housing in the Antelope Valley.
"What we agreed to do is … put down our rifles and pick up our shovels and use that energy to grow the city," said Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris.
The clash was sparked by the use of sheriff's deputies and special housing investigators — partially funded by Los Angeles County — in an aggressive effort to target violators of the terms of federal Section 8 housing vouchers in the Antelope Valley. Activists called the effort a pretext for driving out Section 8 tenants, most of whom are black. Local officials vehemently denied that, and the dispute laid bare the festering racial tensions in the high desert.
Members of the Antelope Valley-based Community Action League, a civil rights group, and the California State Conference of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People sued both Palmdale and Lancaster in federal court in 2011, saying city officials were waging an "unrelenting war" against low-income families who receive housing vouchers.
The NAACP also filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Soon after, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors stopped funding additional housing investigators in the two cities. Palmdale then settled its portion of the lawsuit without admitting wrongdoing.
Lancaster continued to fight, however, and in June the NAACP said it was withdrawing the complaint with the housing department to focus on the civil case against the city.
Lancaster officials had argued that their enforcement efforts were legitimate given local concerns that voucher recipients were being disproportionately directed to their area. And they insisted that many were guilty of violations of Section 8 rules.
But under the compromise detailed at Wednesday's news conference at the Lancaster Museum of Art and History, city officials said they had agreed to form a working group with civil rights representatives to scrutinize city rental ordinances and regulations for "disparate impact" on tenants who use Section 8 housing vouchers or landlords who rent to them. The group will also review any proposed relevant ordinances and present any concerns to the City Council. The five-year agreement contains a provision that the plaintiffs will return to court if the city fails to meet its obligations.
Activists praised Lancaster for committing to end what they termed a "rhetoric of conflict."
Parris called the working group "an opportunity to put diversity into the leadership of the community."
Catherine Lhamon, director of impact litigation at Public Counsel, the public interest law firm representing the plaintiffs, credited Parris for making a dramatic turnaround on the issue, changing the tone of the conflict and bringing an agreement.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Catherine Lhamon as Llamon.
About 2,400 low-income black and Latino families use the federally subsidized rental housing vouchers in Lancaster.
After the NAACP filed suit, Lancaster filed a complaint against the county and its housing authority, alleging that the agency unlawfully favors African Americans in granting vouchers under Section 8 of the federal Housing Act. City officials argue that at least 70% of Lancaster's housing subsidy recipients are African American, compared with about 14% who are Latino. Yet blacks account for slightly more than 20% of Lancaster's 157,000 residents, whereas Latinos make up about 38%.
Parris said Wednesday that the city would continue to press that complaint. "We haven't compromised in any way on Section 8," he said. "I still think that the way the county of L.A. administers this program is deplorable. What we recognized is that we should work on improving it instead of using it to fight each other."