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L.A. County to pay $2 million to Antelope Valley housing discrimination victims

Stan Muhammad, far right, speaks during a press conference in July 2013 held by local civil rights groups including the Community Action League, National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, and League of United Latino American Citizens, in response to the Justice Department finding that Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies in the Antelope Valley harassed and intimidated black, Latino and Section 8 residents.

Stan Muhammad, far right, speaks during a press conference in July 2013 held by local civil rights groups including the Community Action League, National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, and League of United Latino American Citizens, in response to the Justice Department finding that Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies in the Antelope Valley harassed and intimidated black, Latino and Section 8 residents.

(Christina House/ For The Times)

The U.S. Justice Department on Monday closed the books on a four-year investigation that found that Los Angeles County housing officials and sheriff’s deputies joined with two cities to drive black residents out of Antelope Valley.

The county Housing Authority agreed to pay $2 million to victims of alleged discrimination, and some families who lost their housing assistance will have the chance to get it back. This year, the Sheriff’s Department agreed to pay $700,000 and implement policies aimed at preventing racial bias.

The Justice Department launched an investigation in 2011 into allegations that minorities — particularly African Americans — living in federally subsidized housing in Lancaster and Palmdale were being harassed and discriminated against by sheriff’s deputies and county housing agency officials.

Prosecutors alleged in a lawsuit that the agencies had engaged in a “targeted campaign of discriminatory enforcement against African American [housing] voucher holders in order to discourage and exclude them and other African Americans from living in the cities.”

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Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said the changes made as a result of the case will give more people the chance to live in neighborhoods of their choosing without fear of government harassment.

“There’s really no question that for many people and communities in this country, where you live determines the opportunities you have,” she said.

Those who say they were targeted by the discrimination — and there could be hundreds — will be eligible for monetary damages and will have a chance to have their Section 8 low-income housing vouchers reinstated.

Toni Clark, 55, said she lost her rental subsidy after deputies found a small amount of marijuana in her car during a traffic stop in 2008 and alerted housing officials. Clark said she and her children ended up homeless because of the incident.

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“I’ve been through hell,” she said. “I just didn’t feel the punishment fit the crime.”

Clark said she was “overjoyed” to hear of the settlement.

The county supervisors voted 4 to 0 last week with Don Knabe absent to approve the monetary part of the agreement and 3 to 1 for the “remedial measures.” But the terms were not released until it was finalized Monday.

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who represents Antelope Valley, cast the lone “no” vote. Antonovich’s housing deputy, Jarrod DeGonia, said the supervisor “felt it was important that those individuals who were caught in violation of Section 8 rules not receive any money because of the settlement.”

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The federal complaint alleged that the county Housing Authority and Sheriff’s Department subjected black Section 8 voucher holders to “more intrusive and intimidating compliance checks” than their white counterparts and also were more likely to terminate black residents’ vouchers. Federal officials alleged that the cities, which provided money to the county for extra enforcement, encouraged the discriminatory practices.

The settlement requires the county and cities to put in place new anti-discrimination policies and training for employees who deal with housing.

Section 8 voucher holders who can show that they were discriminated against from 2004 to 2011 will also have the chance to have their vouchers reinstated or receive compensation of up to $25,000. The process could take a year or longer, Justice Department officials said.

Of the hundreds of people who say they were discriminated against, only five households will be able to have their vouchers restored, according to settlement documents, which did not specify a reason for that number. They must first go through a vetting process. A larger number will be eligible to receive monetary compensation or have their voucher termination wiped from public housing records.

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V. Jesse Smith, co-founder of the Community Action League, an Antelope Valley advocacy group that filed a separate lawsuit in 2011 over the discrimination allegations, said he was happy to hear that some people would have the chance to get their vouchers back.

“We never did this for money,” he said. “We did this to protect the rights of our Section 8 citizens.”

County housing officials said they have made changes since 2011, including discontinuing the compliance check program that had led to many of the discrimination complaints. A Housing Authority spokeswoman said the agency has since adopted “alternative program enforcement measures, vetted by the DOJ, that have actually proven to be more effective and efficient.”

Housing Authority Executive Director Sean Rogan said in a statement that the settlement will allow the agency to “put the matter behind us and focus efforts on our goal of providing quality housing assistance to low-income families, seniors and veterans.”

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Palmdale Assistant City Atty. Noel Doran said the allegation that the city encouraged discrimination is “patently false.” The practice of cities providing money to the county for housing enforcement was common at the time, he said. Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford said Palmdale is an “incredibly integrated city.”

A spokesman for the city of Lancaster did not respond to a request for comment. The cities will not be required to contribute to the monetary settlement but must put policies in place to prevent discrimination.

Under the separate agreement reached with the Sheriff’s Department in April, the county was required to put in place rules that require deputies to be more courteous toward Antelope Valley residents.

The county also agreed to set aside $700,000 to pay victims of racial profiling and to track data on stops and searches to determine whether minorities are being unfairly targeted.

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Follow Abby Sewell on Twitter at @sewella for more county news.


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