A not-so-welcome mat
THE anonymous tip came in over a special hotline: 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, half a 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.
“What?” Baker said, sobbing. “I didn’t know it was there. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have let you in.”
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.
“We work hard for what we’ve earned,” said John Alvarez, who said his house was burglarized by teenagers on Section 8. “And we don’t want that mentality in our neighborhood.”
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.
Other civic leaders acknowledge that innocent people might be harmed in the effort but see it as an unfortunate consequence of a crucial undertaking.
“Our community is dying,” said R. Rex Parris, a local lawyer and civic leader who organized an anti-crime meeting this spring. “The reality is we’re going to have to suffer a certain amount of injustice to fix this.”
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.
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 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.
Nicola Jackson, 36, was part of the influx. The only Section 8 apartment she could find in Los Angeles was in a neighborhood where her five kids had to worry about stray bullets.
In Lancaster, her Section 8 subsidy got her a four-bedroom, three-bathroom home on a cul-de-sac. She spent hours decorating each room, matching her curtains to the fresh paint.
In some ways, this is how Section 8 backers hoped the program would work: Created during the Nixon administration, it was hailed as a way to break up bleak public housing projects considered incubators for poverty and crime. The idea was to move poor people into neighborhoods with access to better jobs and schools.
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%.
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.
John Alvarez’s house was looted last August. His two young children, he said, were afraid to sleep alone for six months. “They lost their innocence on that day,” said Alvarez, 31, a middle school math and history teacher.
Soon after the break-in, he and others got together for a Neighborhood Watch meeting. They talked about how to take back their neighborhoods from people on Section 8. Among their tactics: flooding a hotline set up in 2004 to take complaints about neighbors on such subsidies.
Eventually, the complaints brought visits from housing authority investigators, who found cause to cut off some subsidies. Among those targeted was Nicola Jackson, the woman who had moved with such delight into a four-bedroom home on a cul-de-sac.
Although Jackson wasn’t implicated in the burglaries, her neighbors didn’t like her. They claimed she had wild parties, that teenage visitors shot out a streetlight and that Jackson’s boyfriend stood with menacing-looking pit bulls at the entrance to the cul-de-sac.
No one would speak on the record, citing fear of retaliation.
In revoking her subsidy, officials alleged that her boyfriend was living with her without authorization -- an allegation she denies. Jackson said her neighbors’ real problem was that she was black and on Section 8.
Then came the Chihuahua incident -- allegedly perpetrated by the same teenagers who hit Alvarez’s place a few blocks away. 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.
The plight of Roxy, who recovered, made the news in Australia. Meanwhile, less egregious acts were rankling homeowners all over the Antelope Valley.
‘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.
“If they don’t care how they live, we don’t want them,” Hearns said. “But if they want to be good citizens, keeping their yards up like everybody else, they are welcome here.”
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.”
“It was quick, but it was fair,” said Hearns, declining to say how the ouster was accomplished.
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, a single mother who suffers from mental illness. She lost her subsidy earlier 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.
“My neighbors are little white old ladies,” she said. “I couldn’t hide a 6-foot-6 black man.”
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.
“They are biased,” Stephanie Haffner, a lawyer with Neighborhood Legal Services, said of the hearing officers. Her group has challenged the enforcement program in a series of lawsuits, including one on behalf of Williams.
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.
And tenants will continue to face the consequences. For four months, Williams and her teenage daughter were without a permanent home, moving from one friend’s house to another to avoid becoming a burden on anyone. Last month, they moved into a smaller unsubsidized apartment, to which Williams devotes most of her disability income.
Talking about how hard it was to tell her daughter that they had to move, Williams dissolved into sobs, hiding her face behind her hand and rocking back and forth.
“It’s tough. I had a nice life once upon a time,” she said. “It’s not necessary to interrupt somebody’s life like that.”
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