The New York Times
By: Jennifer Medina
August 10, 2011
LANCASTER, Calif. -- This city in the high desert, at the far northern edge of the Los Angeles sprawl, is filled with cozy cul-de-sacs, stucco homes, green lawns and gleaming sedans.
A three-bedroom house rents for the same price as a small apartment in Los Angeles, 70 miles to the south. So it is hardly shocking that the number of renters here who use the federal Section 8 housing subsidy has more than doubled in the last decade, to roughly 3,500, at a time when housing values have crumbled at the exurban fringe, driving prices even lower.
The once-booming town, like hundreds of others at the edge of major metropolitan areas across the country, is also facing stark changes in its demographic mix, going in a few decades from a small, overwhelmingly white city to a much larger, ethnically diverse one where whites make up a third of the population. Fault lines have opened, with some residents worrying that neighborhoods are inundated with crime, and others seeing racism.
Mayor R. Rex Parris has contended for years that the area has been treated as a "dumping ground" for the poor of Los Angeles County. He has repeatedly said that Lancaster should be "waging a war" against the Section 8 program, which provides housing vouchers to low-income families, because there are disproportionately more recipients living in the area than in the rest of the county. It is a "problem that is crushing our community," he said.
Now, civil rights groups have filed a federal lawsuit accusing Lancaster and neighboring Palmdale of unfairly singling out Latino and black residents who use Section 8 vouchers to help pay rent. The residents, they say, face unannounced visits from sheriff's deputies and county housing agents, as well as aggressive surveillance from neighbors. The investigations, the lawsuit charges, are thinly veiled efforts to have the residents' vouchers revoked.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development notified Lancaster last month that it would investigate the accusations. The city could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants.
Section 8 housing vouchers were created under the Nixon administration as a way to break up poor enclaves in urban centers and allow more people to move to the suburbs, where they could, potentially, get better jobs and their children could go to better schools. Recipients are typically required to spend about a third of their monthly income on rent. In Los Angeles, there is a 10-year waiting list for the vouchers. Once a resident has a voucher terminated, it is difficult to have it reinstated.
In 2004, Lancaster and Palmdale hired additional investigators from the Los Angeles County Housing Authority to look into suspected violators, splitting the cost with the county as law enforcement officials scoured homes for drugs or, more commonly, extra tenants. Mr. Parris said he wanted to make it simpler for neighbors to complain about residents who were not keeping up their homes, leaving garbage cans on the street or hanging laundry on the front lawn.
After the investigations began, he said, crime in the city, which had been steadily increasing, started to drop.
"There's no doubt in my mind our effort to root out Section 8 abuse was a part of that," Mr. Parris said in a recent interview. Although he presented the same argument to county officials, they recently voted to stop paying for the extra investigators. "The question should really be: Why are we the only ones who are doing something about it?"
While Palmdale has employed many of the same measures as Lancaster, Mayor James C. Ledford Jr. has not been as outspoken as Mr. Parris. Mr. Ledford declined to comment for this article, but in June told a local reporter that he was focused on compliance.
"The effects of people not living within the rules has a devastating effect on our neighborhoods," he said. "We're trying to preserve our neighborhoods."
In many instances, the compliance investigations have led to recipients losing their vouchers. According to the lawsuit, more than half of the county's proposed revocations came from the two cities, though fewer than 20 percent of the county's roughly 21,000 Section 8 voucher recipients live in them.
"They've made criminals out of everyone associated with Section 8," said Jesse Smith, a leader of the local N.A.A.C.P., which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "They just want to keep everything the way it was for the good-old-boy network."
For decades the Antelope Valley, as the stretch on the northeast border of Los Angeles County and the western edge of the Mojave Desert is called, was just a remote sweep of small towns. More recently, the area boomed and the population grew exponentially as scrub brush gave way to relatively inexpensive housing. (The growth also fueled demographic changes: in 1980, when the population of Lancaster was roughly 48,000, the city was 86 percent white, with a black population of 3 percent. In 2010, with the population reaching 157,000, whites made up a third of the city, while 20 percent of the population was black and 38 percent Hispanic, according to census figures.)
Then came the bust. Thousands of houses sat foreclosed or vacant, while others were bought up by investors who did not necessarily live in the city but were eager to rent out the space. That left a prime opportunity for Section 8 recipients, who were thrilled by the relative bargains.
"I thought this would be a place with good chances, much better chances than in L.A., and we could have a bigger and better home," said one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who filed under the name of Judy Doe, saying that she feared retaliation.
She said that in the last few years, her Palmdale home had been the target of intense investigations, with dozens of sheriff's deputies showing up at her door repeatedly and intimidating her four children. After neighbors learned that the family received a housing voucher, a group of boys threw urine at her youngest son and yelled racial epithets when he was walking to school one morning.
"It turned into a nightmare where we were just afraid to leave our house," said the woman, who is black. "The reason we came out here some years ago was so we didn't have to be afraid."
There is a widespread resentment against the influx of Section 8 participants in the area. The local newspaper, The Antelope Valley Press, prominently features stories about people with any kind of Section 8 violation. "I hate Section 8" became almost a rallying cry -- a Facebook page by that name featured pictures of some rental homes. In January, the garage of one such home was spray painted with a racial epithet and the "I hate Section 8" message.
Mayor Parris, who is white, says that such attacks should not be tolerated, but he dismisses the racism claims in the lawsuit, saying that the advocates filing it were acting as "poverty pimps who are just looking for attention."
The mayor, a Lancaster native whose family was on welfare for part of his childhood, is not shy about using dramatic language to make his point. He said that by not providing the city with more money to provide social services or warning potential residents that there is little public transportation, the county was "just sending people here to die." He has repeatedly said that the program simply "moves the urban poor to the hard-working suburbs."
A few years ago, the mayor floated the idea of an advertising campaign highlighting a lack of jobs and a relatively high cost of living. But housing officials said that would be unfair, since a primary principle of the Section 8 program is to allow recipients to move wherever they choose.
"People come here with no support network, no family at home to help them, nothing but just a house to live in," Mr. Parris said. "It makes no sense to encourage them to come."