|Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, pictured at a news conference last year, insisted Wednesday that the city's crackdown on Section 8 had nothing to do with race and called the supervisors' decision "insanity." (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
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 National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People filed a lawsuit against Lancaster and Palmdale, claiming that officials used sheriff's 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 must also 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 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."
The supervisors voted 4 to 1 to eliminate the funding and implement other measures. Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose 5th District includes the Antelope Valley, cast the dissenting vote.
In an emailed statement, Antonovich said the additional housing investigators had "effectively rooted out fraud in the Antelope Valley" because 91% of Section 8 terminations had been upheld. He added that with more than 200,000 eligible families and seniors on the county's 10-year waiting list for government-subsidized housing and only three investigators countywide, it was "impossible to remove fraud and abuse to ensure those who actually need the housing will get it."
Palmdale Assistant City Atty. Noel Doran said the City Council planned to discuss the pending litigation at its regularly scheduled meeting next week and wouldn't comment before then.
Larry Gross, executive director of the L.A.-based Coalition for Economic Survival, which advocates for low-income tenants, said he hoped the agreement would "serve as a message to other jurisdictions that they also must take action to ensure low-income tenants have a level playing field and are able to find decent and affordable housing in those areas."
Michelle Ross, 36, a housing voucher recipient who lived for more than four years in Palmdale and then Lancaster, said she welcomed the county's action.
Ross said she suffered intimidation "just for getting some kind of assistance." After her home was pictured on a Facebook page called "I Hate Section 8," racist graffiti and a swastika were spray-painted on her property. The harassment led her to leave town.
"Me and my family, we feel safe now," Ross said.