Section 8 lawsuit spurs federal investigation into racial discrimination in the Antelope Valley

The US Justice Department announced Friday that it will launch an investigation into alleged discrimination by the LA County Sheriff’s Departments in Palmdale and Lancaster. Specifically, the Justice Department will investigate:

  • Whether deputies have conducted warrantless searches of African-American families’ homes under the auspices of housing authority compliance inspections;
  • Allegations that housing authority investigators based in the Lancaster and Palmdale sheriff’s stations have been accompanied by sheriff’s deputies as they conduct routine housing contract compliance checks;
  • Allegations that deputies have approached Section 8 recipients’ homes with guns drawn and in full SWAT armor and conducted searches and questioning themselves, unrelated to the housing program;
  • Allegations that the sheriff’s department has sought to identify, during routine traffic stops, individuals who use Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers.

The Justice Department is also investigating whether there has been a systematic effort by the cities of Palmdale and Lancaster to discriminate against African-Americans and Latinos.

“I am pleased that the Justice Department has recognized the need to finally come into the Antelope Valley and review the injustices created under the color of authority,” said Juan Blanco, President of the Antelope Valley Branch NAACP.

In June, the NAACP joined The Public Counsel Law Center in filing a federal lawsuit against the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, claiming more than 3,600 black and Latino families using Section 8 were 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,” Catherine Lhamon of the Public Counsel said in a statement. “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.”

The lawsuit was filed in federal district court on behalf of The Community Action League, the NAACP, and two residents who faced racial discrimination.

The lawsuit states that city and county officials engaged in practices meant to drive out black and Latino residents. The lawsuit claims:

  • 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.”
  • 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.
  • 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.

“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,” 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.

Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris and Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford have both denied the allegations. Parris told City News Service the lawsuit was “nonsense” and said his city is doing nothing more than enforcing the rules of the Section 8 program to the letter. In the wake of the lawsuit, the Board of Supervisors in June suspended Section 8 “crackdowns” for 90 days.

The matter is now being investigated by attorneys from the Special Litigation Section and Housing and Civil Enforcement Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.   The department is asking citizens with comments or concerns to contact the department at 1-877-218-5228, or via email at community.antelope@usdoj.gov.