Michelle Ross moved her family to the north Los Angeles County city of Palmdale in 2009 hoping to put her children in an environment where she no longer had to worry about crime. She was welcomed by her neighbors when she first arrived. But when the neighbors found out that Ross was a participant in the federal Section 8 housing voucher program, she found herself with new worries. She became the target of bullying and harassment—not just from neighborhood residents, but from the police as well.
What Ross did not know was that Palmdale elected officials had colluded with the L.A. county’s housing authority and sheriff’s department to scare African-American families in the voucher program out of the city. So says a Fair Housing Act complaint filed on July 20 by the U.S. Department of Justice against the county and Palmdale, which was settled the same day. The complaint and settlement also involve the neighboring city of Lancaster, which was accused of employing the same discriminatory tactics.
As low-income, African-American families continue fleeing increasingly unaffordable cities for the lower rent costs found outside urban cores, some suburban metros have been hesitant to absorb the new populations. This has been especially true if the new residents come bearing Section 8 vouchers.
Palmdale and Lancaster took on large numbers of low-income, black families over the past couple of decades. In Palmdale, the population more than doubled between 1990 and 2010, from 68,917 to 152,750, according to a Justice Department investigation. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of Section 8-voucher families also grew, from 455 to 825. The growth was just as heavy in Lancaster, where the population grew from 97,291 to 156,633 between 1990 and 2010, and the number of voucher families tripled, from 510 to 1,530.
Meanwhile, both cities are among the top 25 cities with declining white populations across southern California, according to the University of Southern California’s Population Dynamics Research Group. Lancaster is one of the top 25 cities in this region with an increasing black population, according to the same study.
In the early 2000s, Palmdale and Lancaster began spending “significant resources” to pay for investigators and sheriff’s deputies for the sole purpose of aggressively monitoring families in the Section 8 voucher program, reads the Justice Department’s complaint. As a result, hundreds of black families had investigators randomly show up at their doors, often with a posse of armed sheriffs, to search their homes and interrogate them about their housing status.
Reads a press statement from the Justice Department:
[The Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles] and [the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department] used their resources to effectuate the cities’ [Palmdale and Lancaster] mutual discriminatory goals and to carry out their own discriminatory motives by disproportionately subjecting African-American voucher holders in the cities to more intrusive and intimidating compliance checks and referring those households for termination from the voucher program at greater rates than white voucher holders living in the cities, or any voucher holders living elsewhere in the county of Los Angeles.
The federal complaint builds on a lawsuit filed in 2011 by the NAACP alleging the same problems. That lawsuit was settled in 2012, with the sheriff’s department agreeing to train its staff on the rights of voucher-holding families. But the Justice Department found the cities’ problems bad enough that it decided to do its own investigation—the findings of which in 2013 revealed an out-of-control sheriff’s department that appeared to have taken on the specific assignment of intimidating black families.
The L.A. county’s sheriff’s department was ordered to pay out close to $700,000 for its role in this, which was settled separately in late April. As for the July 20 settlement, the county will have to shell out $2 million to the hundreds of families the Justice Department says were unjustly forced out of their homes and/or out of the Section 8 program because of discrimination. The federal government was seeking upwards of $12 million for those families.
Palmdale and Lancaster won’t pay anything in that settlement, despite being named by the Justice Department as key orchestrators of the agenda. L.A. county will foot the bill alone. Said Palmdale City Attorney Matthew Ditzhay, “After five years of intense scrutiny and two lawsuits, we paid nothing in the settlement. We have maintained from the beginning that the City of Palmdale did nothing wrong and should never have been dragged into this lawsuit and I think the terms of the settlement reflect that.”
Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris was even less humble in his public statement about how his city wasn’t paying up:
Our triumph in this case is bittersweet. While we have been rightfully absolved of any misconduct, the fact remains that the Federal government pursued a witch hunt on our City… on our Valley. For five years, they focused unlimited energy and resources toward trying to drag us down. As the Mayor and resident of a truly integrated community, I am professionally and personally offended by the baseless allegations the City of Lancaster has been subjected to under the Department of Justice’s authority.
Parris’s decree of innocence is interesting considering that much of the federal government’s case against Lancaster stems from the mayor’s own public comments disparaging Section 8 families. As noted in the Justice Department’s 2013 investigation findings:
Mayor Parris, for example, stated that housing seniors and persons with disabilities is "the reason that [the Section 8] program" should exist. While vowing not to do anything that would in any way create obstacles for Section 8 housing for seniors or the disabled, Mayor Parris spoke of a "monster that comes with Section 8" and stated an intent to try to keep Section 8 voucher holders from outside the Antelope Valley from moving there. Mayor Parris also stated
publicly his belief that it is "unfair" that African Americans receive a higher percentage of Section 8 program vouchers than their population share. Mayor Parris repeatedly said that Lancaster should be "waging a war" against the voucher program, arguing that the program is a "problem that is crushing [the Antelope Valley] community."
Check out this video created by the civil rights group The Community Action League to hear the words straight from the mayor’s mouth, and also to hear from Michelle Ross, the woman whose family was harassed after her Palmdale neighbors found out she was in the voucher program:
Beyond monetary damages, the L.A. county housing authority has agreed to take up a catalogue of reform measures to stop practices that discriminate against black families. But the biggest hammer came down on the county’s sheriff’s department, which agreed to 150 reform measures as part of its April settlement with the federal government. Among those reforms is a stipulation that the sheriffs are prohibited from threatening or intimidating anyone who is taking photos or video of police activities—which means this was a problem.
The goon-squad tactics employed by the sheriffs are perhaps the most troubling, and hopefully not a harbinger of things to come as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently finalized a rule for making it easier for low-income families to access whiter, higher-income neighborhoods. The L.A. sheriffs were acting as the cities directed them to. But the Justice Department says in its complaint that the sheriffs also acted “independently” by “using law enforcement tools, such as probation and parole checks and arrest warrants, to obtain information about voucher program violations.”
The complaint reads that the sheriffs also:
- fail[ed] to properly issue Miranda warnings even when deputies had a legitimate reason to enter voucher-holder homes
- provid[ed] confidential information about voucher holders to third parties
- used information gathered during administrative compliance checks to further criminal investigations
It’s one thing to carry out the orders of city and county officials as the enforcement arm of the law. But the activities above more than cross those lines, and take on the character of people who are personally invested in keeping black, low-wage families out of their neighborhoods. The cities justified the beefed up security by claiming that the voucher families were increasing crime. But many studies, including two studies conducted by Lancaster itself (page 41), have shown that crime does not rise with the growth of poor families in a city.
When statistical evidence like that is cast aside to continue such targeted enforcement, that means something else is at play—namely racism. The cities have not owned up to this, even as a Lancaster city council member had to resign for making bigoted comments about these families. The sheriffs have refused to admit any wrongdoing either, despite the payout. Meanwhile, a July 5 L.A. Times editorial frets that the sheriff’s department has been operating with no real oversight for too long, meaning little accountability. Which means it could happen again.