Neighbors clash over Section 8 housing

The Baltimore Sun

The anonymous tip came in over a hot line: Someone was smoking marijuana on the balcony of Rachel Baker's government-subsidized apartment.

On a recent morning, Lee D'Errico, a Los Angeles County Housing Authority investigator, bounded up the stairs of the sprawling two-story complex in Lancaster, a half-dozen armed sheriff's deputies on his heels.

D'Errico rapped on the door of Baker, a 28-year-old single mother of three. She took one look at the group on her stairs, ordered her children into a bedroom and moved aside.

Then the officers, who had no warrant, searched the home. Within minutes, they discovered a half-smoked marijuana cigarette under a couch cushion - enough, D'Errico told Baker, to terminate her subsidy under the federal Section 8 program.

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.

Baker's boyfriend, who said he was there to watch the children while she went to work, admitted that the marijuana was his. But the Section 8 program has zero tolerance for drug use.

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.

More than 350 families have lost their subsidies in the past two years, which is more than 10 percent of the rolls in the Antelope Valley.

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.

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

The crackdown has set off a social conflict, pitting neighbor against neighbor, tenant against homeowner, and, often, blacks against whites.

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.

Compared with other parts of the region, 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.

In much of L.A. County, landlords complain that payments under Section 8 fall below market rates, but in Lancaster and Palmdale, they are a boon. The government allows landlords to charge up to $1,874 for a three-bedroom house. Some have two-car garages, vaulted ceilings, modern kitchens and swimming pools. Under Section 8, poor tenants pay about a third of their income in rent; the federal government pays the rest directly to the landlord.

Section 8 tenants have flooded in. About 1,500 families were on Section 8 in the Antelope Valley in 2000, according to government statistics. By early 2006, the number had more than doubled.

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.

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.

"In many cases," the report concluded, Section 8 "becomes a scapegoat for larger problems or changes in the community," such as declining quality of life and property values.

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 percent.

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.

The Chihuahua's owner, Kim Holzer, was at work, and her husband was serving in the Air Force in Afghanistan when the burglars ransacked their place and put 3-pound Roxy in the freezer, where she was found near death by a sheriff's deputy.

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.

Hearns said he had a run-in with neighbors that he suspected were on Section 8. Perturbed that they were not bringing in their trash cans, he went over to their house to offer assistance.

The 74-year-old pastor of a 3,000-member church said he was not warmly received. He wound up in an altercation with the teenage boy who lived there, then was ordered off the property by the boy's father. Within weeks, the mayor said, "I had him out."

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.

One tenant attorney pointed to the case of Cecily Williams. She lost her subsidy this year when her adult son was arrested for robbery. Tenants are not entitled to aid if they or children living with them commit crimes.

But Williams said her son was not living with her. At a hearing to contest her termination, she produced mail, bank statements and a California driver's license to show that her son lived in South Los Angeles.

But a hearing officer refused to grant her a reprieve. Tenants can contest the termination of their subsidies at informal hearings, but lawyers complain that their clients often are denied a chance to tell their side of the story or see the evidence against them.

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.

Jessica Garrison and Ted Rohrlich write for the Los Angeles Times.

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