A Not-So-Welcome Mat

Jessica Garrison and Ted Rohrlich, Los Angeles Times, June 17, 2007

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It was another fruitful investigation for the housing authority in the Antelope Valley, where officials have launched one of the most aggressive campaigns in the nation to stamp out unauthorized or illegal behavior in federally subsidized housing.

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The crackdown, initiated by local political leaders with the support of county Supervisor Mike Antonovich in mid-2004, has been fueled by the anger and fear of homeowners in the Antelope Valley. Many associate rising crime, gang violence and declining property values with an influx of poor and mostly black Section 8 tenants from South Los Angeles.

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More than 350 families have lost their subsidies in the last two years, which is more than 10% of the rolls in the Antelope Valley. Some have been left homeless.

Section 8 recipients and their attorneys say that civil rights are being violated as housing authority investigators team with law enforcement to conduct unannounced searches without warrants. People who see deputies massed at their door are effectively coerced into letting them in, the lawyers argue. Adding to the show of force, sometimes, are masked officers with guns drawn, looking for felons in violation of their parole. The various agencies work together.

Critics say the campaign is unfair because it is selective: The Antelope Valley is home to only about 15% of Section 8 recipients managed by the housing authority, but 60% of the agency’s subsidy terminations occur there, according to a Times analysis.

The crackdown has set off a sometimes dramatic social conflict, pitting neighbor against neighbor, tenant against homeowner, and, often, blacks against whites. Charges of lawlessness have been met with countercharges of racism and vigilantism.

Antonovich says race has nothing to do with it: It is aimed only at criminals and rule breakers and will make room for honest people who have waited years for a subsidy. His office, which has allocated $284,000 to match local government contributions, contends that officials are taking a judicious approach: Only half of the families investigated this year have actually lost their subsidies.

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To Sylvia Franklin, a black single mother of three who says she lost her subsidy unfairly, the message is simple. “They don’t want us here,” she said.

Lots of housing, cheap

Compared with the Los Angeles Basin, housing in the Antelope Valley is plentiful and cheap. Walled-off new developments of stucco houses and spindly trees rise out of the desert scrub and stretch to the horizon.

The dusty desert towns are among the few places in Los Angeles County where people without great means can buy a new house. The trade-off for many is a brutal commute of 140 miles round trip to jobs in Los Angeles—one measure of their desire for a piece of suburbia.

The housing deals also attracted other customers: Section 8 landlords.

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The influx contributed to a demographic transformation. The number of African Americans in Lancaster and Palmdale has soared, nearly quadrupling to 45,000 in 15 years.

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Around the country, however, Section 8 tenants have not necessarily been welcomed into middle-class enclaves, according to a federally commissioned report issued in 2001.

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In the Antelope Valley, homeowners are particularly rattled by rising crime. Property crimes climbed at nearly twice the rate of the population in Lancaster and Palmdale between 2000 and 2005. Though the number of overall violent crimes has risen only slightly, the number of murders has nearly tripled, and robberies are up 60%.

At least in part, many residents blame Section 8.

Launching a war

On a Monday in March, more than 3,000 people, many of them homeowners, filled Lancaster Baptist Church. They came to vent about the latest assaults on their suburban dreams.

Just weeks before, teenage boys—presumed to be from Section 8 families—had broken into the home of a pregnant woman, urinated on her maternity clothes and put her barking Chihuahua in the freezer.

On this night, the attendees vowed to redouble their efforts against such hooliganism, launching what they called the Antelope Valley War on Gangs and Crime. One key objective: limiting the number of Section 8 tenants in the Antelope Valley.

The meeting came as a conflict was raging at the city’s eastern edge, in a decade-old tract with the sedate name of Traditions. Up and down the tidy streets, neighbors could point to houses rented to Section 8 families that they felt were not being cared for properly, bringing down everyone’s property values.

They shook their heads at lawns turned brown for lack of water and at garbage cans abandoned on the street. Some said they were afraid to let their children play in the local park because of reports of a mugging. After a rash of burglaries, neighbors concluded that Section 8 tenants or their families were responsible.

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‘I had him out’

Lancaster Mayor Henry Hearns, who is the first black elected official in the valley, says the homeowners’ anger is not based in racism. It’s about a failure to maintain standards.

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In the area’s haste to cleanse its suburbs, critics say, officials have swept up people who desperately need help and have played by the rules.

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In four instances since 2005, Superior Court judges have reviewed hearing officers’ decisions from the Antelope Valley, records show. They have ruled against the housing authority in three of them, saying there was not enough evidence of wrongdoing for people to lose their subsidies. More cases, including Williams’, are pending.

One of the strongest objections is to the warrantless searches. But law enforcement officials say they are on solid legal ground; tenants can always say no.

Unless a court tells them otherwise, they said, the searches and other enforcement actions will continue.

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