Press Releases

June 07, 2011

Federal Lawsuit Aims to End Antelope Valley 'War' on African American and Latino Residents

LOS ANGELES -- Antelope Valley residents are going to court on Tuesday, June 7, to stop racial discrimination against people seeking a better life for their families in Lancaster and Palmdale. The lawsuit challenges the two cities’ policies and practices that have targeted more than 3,600 black and Latino families using federal housing subsidies in the historically white area.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8, is meant to encourage economic and racial integration and to enable the historic victims of discrimination to live in communities of their own choosing. But families taking their vouchers to Lancaster and Palmdale have been victims of constant, unbearable harassment at the hands of housing authority investigators, sheriff’s deputies and local politicians who have incited neighbors against the families.

“City officials have gone so far as to declare ‘war’ on black and Latino families,” said Catherine Lhamon, Director of Impact Litigation at Public Counsel. “Fifty years after courts outlawed racial segregation, Lancaster and Palmdale have turned back the clock, turning neighbor against neighbor in the process. They should be building one community, not tearing it apart.”

“Lancaster and Palmdale’s actions have forced Section 8 participants to choose between a better life for their families and freedom from unrelenting hostility,” said Neal Dudovitz, Executive Director of Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County.  “Residents live in fear because the cities perpetuate a culture of hate and discrimination that's reflected in their policies and practices.”

The lawsuit is being filed against the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale in federal district court on behalf of the The Community Action League, an Antelope Valley community group; the California State Conference of the NAACP; and two residents who faced racial discrimination. The residents have suffered such damaging harassment that their names are protected in the lawsuit because they fear retaliation for speaking out.

Click here to read the complaint (PDF).

Plaintiffs are represented by Public Counsel, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, civil rights attorney Gary Blasi, Bill Lann Lee of Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker, & Jackson, P.C., the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, and the NAACP.

Attorneys say the campaign against recipients of housing aid violates the federal Fair Housing Act and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and is a throwback to the time when black and Latino communities faced officially sanctioned racial and ethnic exclusion and discrimination. The lawsuit states that city and county officials engaged in practices meant to drive out black and Latino residents:

• Lancaster’s mayor said in a City Council meeting that “it is time to go to war” against Section 8 residents. In public comments, elected officials in both cities spread false stereotypes of Section 8 participants as outsiders who have been "dumped" in their cities, and criminals.
• Lancaster and Palmdale targeted Housing Choice participants based on lists they received from the County, a violation of state and federal law.
• The cities have targeted families and landlords with a pattern of constant surveillance and harassment, including passage of a nuisance ordinance in Lancaster that encourages neighbors to report “problem renters.”
• As a result, approximately 58% of all recommended Section 8 terminations in Los Angeles County between 2006 and 2010 came from the Antelope Valley, even though Palmdale and Lancaster represent only 17% of the County’s Section 8 households, according to L.A. County data.
• City officials have pressured the County to send threatening letters to landlords who accept Section 8 vouchers and sought ways to deny business licenses to those landlords all together. The federal department of Housing and Urban Development wrote that the proposal would “likely have a significant disproportionate effect on these groups” and “is likely to run afoul of civil rights statutes,” and the County did not send the letters.
• City officials sought ways to dissuade Section 8 participants from moving to the Antelope Valley, including a proposed advertising campaign suggesting that there were no jobs, no services, and that the cost of living was high.

Approximately 3,600 mostly black and Latino families have made the move to Lancaster seeking better lives. According to HUD’s statistics for 2008, the most recent year available, 70% of Lancaster Section 8 tenants were black, and 14% were Latino. Similarly, in Palmdale, 67% of Section 8 participants identified themselves as black and 18% as Latino.

“Now that public housing is no longer being built, the Section 8 program is the nation’s principal program to provide housing to American families living at the poverty line,” said Bill Lann Lee, one of the lawyers for Antelope Valley families and the chief U.S. Department of Justice civil rights prosecutor in the Clinton Administration. “If the tactics Lancaster and Palmdale use to drive out their Section 8 participants are permitted to go on, the national effort to provide families with safe and affordable housing in communities of their choice will be put at risk in California and the nation as a whole.”

“Safe and affordable housing is the bedrock of strong communities,” said Dorcas R. Gilmore, Assistant General Counsel at the NAACP. “When cities deny housing opportunities to people of color, they deny access to achieving the American dream.”

Click here to read the federal lawsuit (pdf)

Public Counsel: Public Counsel is the nation’s largest not-for-profit law firm of its kind with a 40-year track record of fighting for the rights of children and youth, persecuted immigrants, military veterans and nonprofit organizations and small businesses. www.publiccounsel.org

Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County: Neighborhood Legal Services (NLSLA) has been changing lives and transforming communities in Los Angles since 1965.  NLSLA is widely known for its unique and innovative special projects that have expanded access to justice for the poor and address the most critical needs of Los Angles’ poverty communities. www.nls-la.org

NAACP: NAACP Office of the General Counsel is the advocacy and corporate counsel for the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.  Since 1909, the NAACP has fought to eliminate racial discrimination in every facet of American life. www.naacp.org

Gary Blasi: Gary Blasi is a professor of law at UCLA with a 35-year record of public interest practice. He practices, teaches, conducts research and writes about advocacy on behalf of children in substandard schools, homeless families and individuals, low income tenants, low wage workers, and victims of discrimination.

Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker, & Jackson, P.C.: Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker, & Jackson, P.C. is a national law firm that specializes in employment and civil rights litigation. Bill Lann Lee, a partner at the firm, was the nation’s top civil rights prosecutor as Assistant Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice in the Clinton Administration. He has prosecuted national civil rights class actions against employers. www.lewisfeinberg.com

Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP: Founded in 1945, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, a leading international law firm, numbers more than 800 lawyers in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Akin Gump is a charter signatory to the Pro Bono Institute’s Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge in which firms commit to devoting at least 60 pro bono hours per lawyer per year.  Akin Gump’s pro bono clients are referred by legal service organizations located near the firm's nine U.S. offices. These outstanding organizations provide invaluable legal and social services to low-income individuals and underrepresented business and community organizations. www.akingump.com