News Clips

January 25, 2012

LA Times: L.A. County responds to claims of discrimination in Antelope Valley

Los Angeles Times | Ann Simmons

Hoping to avoid a potentially costly civil rights lawsuit, Los Angeles County will stop providing funds for additional housing investigators to the desert communities of Palmdale and Lancaster, where officials have been accused of targeting nonwhite recipients of federal housing subsidies for eviction and harassment.

The action, which the Board of Supervisors took in closed session Tuesday night, is one of a number of measures the board has agreed to implement in the face of legal challenges by civil rights organizations and an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.

Other measures include barring the Sheriff’s Department from sending deputies on housing compliance checks unless they have good reason, and agreeing to preserve the confidentiality of participants in the Section 8 subsidy program.

In June, the NAACP filed a lawsuit against Lancaster and Palmdale, claiming that officials used sheriff’s deputies and other county resources in a campaign to drive black and Latino residents from government-subsidized housing.

The next month, federal prosecutors announced that they were investigating the role of sheriff’s deputies in a series of surprise inspections in the High Desert, as well as other enforcement activities.
Although Los Angeles County has not been named as a defendant in the civil rights lawsuit, officials said they were eager to avoid future litigation.

“While not admitting any of the allegations ... we chose to sit down at the negotiating table to avoid litigation with the focus of improving our program,” said Sean Rogan, executive director of the county Community Development Commission/Housing Authority.

He added that his agency would continue to take steps to combat fraud while ensuring that Section 8 tenants are treated fairly and their rights respected.

The agreement also bars investigators from issuing on-the-spot terminations of housing voucher privileges. Now terminations will occur only after an analyst reviews the case and determines that fraud has been committed. The Housing Authority also must inform aid recipients of their rights.

“It’s a spectacular agreement,” said Catherine Lhamon, director of impact litigation at Public Counsel, the public-interest law firm representing plaintiffs in the suit.

“It ends a long nightmare when families who participated in the Section 8 program lived in fear of a knock at the door ... and when Section 8 families were treated like dangerous criminals simply because they needed help with their rent.”

The county had been paying $98,685 yearly to Lancaster and $62,000 to Palmdale to help fund extra inspectors for the Section 8 program. The Antelope Valley cities insisted that they needed the extra manpower to ensure that landlords and tenants comply with the program’s regulations since there are only three such housing inspectors countywide.

On Wednesday, Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris insisted that the city’s crackdown on Section 8 had nothing to do with race and called the supervisors’ decision “insanity.”

“This is going to have a disastrous effect not only on the city but on the whole county,” Parris said, adding that the city had no intention of settling the lawsuit against it. “When you make people no longer accountable for political reasons, even a dummy knows what’s going to happen. It’s going to make things more difficult.”