R. Rex Parris, mayor of Lancaster
in the high desert of Los Angeles County, began his state-of-the-city address last February by praising his constituents. "We've done something nobody thought we could do," he said, pacing among the luncheon guests at the Antelope Valley Chambers of Commerce. During his four years as mayor, Parris claimed, the city slashed its crime rate by 40 percent. "I'm seeing people for the first time starting to believe it, that we're becoming something that is world class." Then without missing a beat the 60-year-old white-haired attorney added, "And there are a lot of people that would like to stop that progress."
Later in his presentation, Parris gestured toward a slide projected on the wall behind him. It listed statistics indicating that the 5 percent of Lancaster's residents who use federal housing vouchers to help pay their rent account for 10 percent of all arrests in the city. He speculated that Lancaster might even lapse back into having gang problems because of what he considers interference by the county with the city's campaign to police voucher holders. Turning to the table where Bob Jonsen, captain of Lancaster's sheriff substation, was seated, Parris asked, "It's becoming harder, wouldn't you say?"
"Absolutely," Jonsen replied.
Re-elected to a third mayoral term in April, Parris is best known for his administration's focus on one issue: the supposedly higher incidence of street crime in neighborhoods with large numbers of families that receive federal rent subsidies. The Housing Choice Voucher program, known as Section 8, was created by Congress in the 1970s to expand housing options for low-income families, disabled people, and the elderly. (See 42 U.S.C. § 1437f). The vouchers, which can be used anywhere in the country, cover most and sometimes all of the fair-market rent for a house or apartment (recipients contribute 30 percent of their income, and the government pays the remainder). Now one of the largest programs in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) with a budget of $18.3 billion in fiscal 2011, it serves 2.2 million households nationwide.
But a landlord's participation in Section 8 is voluntary, and the program is grimly oversubscribed by tenants - the wait can be years. Prospective recipients must undergo a criminal background check and, once moved in, are subject to unannounced, on-site compliance checks - they can lose eligibility if they violate program rules. For Los Angeles County's housing authority, the rule book is 235 pages long.
Elected mayor of Lancaster in 2008, Parris vowed to prevent the city from becoming a haven for subsidized tenants. Starting in 2007 the housing bust hit Lancaster and neighboring Palmdale especially hard - almost 18 percent of foreclosures in Los Angeles County were occurring in those municipalities, which split a population of roughly 300,000 residents. By the end of 2009 property values there had dropped by half, banks had repossessed more than 14,500 houses, and many sat empty.
The depressed local market, in turn, attracted Section 8 tenants seeking an affordable place to live outside the big city. In 2011 Lancaster alone had 2,233 Section 8 families - roughly 300 more than before the crash. And 84 percent of those families were black or Hispanic.
Lancaster and Palmdale responded aggressively to the newcomers, and sheriff's deputies and county housing inspectors stepped up Section 8 compliance checks. To the tenants, it felt like harassment.
As tensions increased between the cities and voucher holders, residents and a local community organization sought legal help. The Community Action League - along with individual plaintiffs, the Public Counsel Law Center of Los Angeles, and the NAACP - filed a race discrimination lawsuit last year against both Lancaster and Palmdale. (Community Action League v. City of Lancaster
, No. 11-CV-4817 (C.D. Cal. filed Jun. 7, 2011).)
Parris calls the lawsuit's accusations of racial bias "deeply offensive and hurtful." He claims that he received more than 50 percent of Lancaster's African-American vote at the polls in April, and he points to loyal African-American supporters.
Chief among them is Bishop Henry Hearns, who heads a local parish and preceded Parris as mayor. "I know him, I know his heart," Hearns says. "I know his household. I know how young people - black, white, and brown - were in his house and out when his kids were growing up, and they were just like part of the family."
At the luncheon, Parris compared his response to the civil rights suit to the process for tempering steel. "What you do with metal is you heat it up and you get all those molecules just dancing," he said, wiggling his fingers in the air and grinning. "[Then] it cools down with all of the molecules lined up - a much stronger piece of metal that can withstand just about anything. I think that's where we are right now with all this Section 8 stuff. It's just boiling a little bit, and when it cools down we're going to have something magnificent."
Parris then projected a slide of Catherine E. Lhamon, lead counsel in the plaintiffs' suit, surrounded by plaintiffs and her co-counsel. "But until then," he continued, "the biggest threat to this city are the people using Section 8 for their own purposes, for their own political agenda."
In recent interviews, the mayor contends that Lancaster is the victim of a conspiracy to "dump" Los Angeles's poor into distant suburbs. "This suit was not created by the NAACP - [it was] created by the housing authority," he says. "This was a put-up deal by the County of Los Angeles, with the county counsel, to shut us up. That's all this is."
Not so, says Lhamon, who is director of impact litigation at Public Counsel. "I'm actually speechless at the suggestion," she said recently. "It certainly would have been unethical if that had happened, and nothing is further from the truth. ... Lancaster thinks the lawsuit is a fake. For me, that is Exhibit A for why Lancaster needs to be sued."
Earlier this year the plaintiffs negotiated an agreement with the county counsel, and Palmdale settled after U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright denied a motion to dismiss the suit. Lancaster is now the sole defendant. Parris, however, sees no reason for the city to fold.
"The plaintiffs woke up a sleeping dragon," he says. "They shot their shot, and it was a blank. And when I fire the gun, it's never a blank. It's gonna be fun."
To an outsider, the cities of Palmdale and Lancaster
are an indistinguishable grid of wide boulevards lined by walls surrounding innumerable housing subdivisions. On the Sierra Highway, a major artery through the two towns, sits an aging hotel that serves kitchen-style dinners to guests and boarders. Its parking lot is full of pickup trucks driven by young men in cowboy hats and baseball caps. Nearby are a gun shop, a pawnshop, liquor stores, and a place to cash paychecks fast - and east of that is considered the bad part of town. The two cities abut Edwards Air Force Base and are home to a state prison, the Antelope Valley's parole office, and the county's largest probation camp for juvenile offenders. In the past, the area has been less than welcoming to African Americans.
Earl Wilson moved to Lancaster in 1963 when NASA recruited him to work as an engineer at a research center on the air force base. Born in Texas - where African Americans were routinely expected to "go in the back door to eat," he recalls - Wilson says he was taken aback by the racism he encountered in California. Despite his professional job, he couldn't find anyone in Lancaster who would sell him a house. "I was really shocked," he said, "I didn't think there was any discrimination in the Golden State."
Until the mid-1960s, black families looking to live in Palmdale were directed east to unincorporated Sun Village. But Antelope Valley's demographics began to change in the 1980s, driven by a previous crash in the real estate market that drew families from Los Angeles who hoped to get more house for their money. The Latino population increased by a third, and the African-American population doubled.
With those changes came a rise in white supremacist activity and hate crimes, directed mostly at African Americans. In 1995, members of a group called the Nazi Low Riders fired guns into a car carrying black people. Two years later, three youths were charged with murdering an African-American man in Palmdale in a bid to earn tattoos symbolizing white supremacy.
Around that time Bishop Hearns entered the political scene in Lancaster. He served on the city council before becoming mayor, and helped initiate the crackdown on Section 8 recipients in 2004. The city's campaign, however, produced resistance in the affected neighborhoods.
Emmett Murrell runs several group homes for troubled young people in Antelope Valley. He founded the nonprofit Community Action League (TCAL) in 2008 to address juvenile justice issues, but he says the group's focus changed to housing after two board members were personally affected by local Section 8 enforcement actions and a third started hearing complaints of a similar nature from members of his church.
Many of the incidents involved unannounced checks of tenants' residences in which sheriff's deputies accompanied housing authority inspectors. In October 2009, for instance, Sheila Williams received a visit at her Lancaster home from sheriff's deputies who said they were responding to a call about a possible burglary. There was no burglary, but Williams's son and his friends were at home. According to TCAL's civil complaint against the city, the deputies determined that Williams was a Section 8 recipient and called a county housing inspector. The deputies and the investigator searched the entire house together. A few weeks later, Williams received notice that her voucher benefits were to be terminated.
Michelle Ross, another plaintiff and the mother of five children, says her troubles with Palmdale also began in 2009. In an interview she recounted how her nine-year-old daughter opened the front door early one morning to find more than 15 sheriff's deputies standing outside. The officers fanned out through the house, guns drawn, looking for Ross, who was upstairs taking a shower at the time.
Responding to their pounding on the bathroom door, Ross got dressed and went downstairs. There the officers demanded to know the whereabouts of her 16-year-old son, who had been sent to a juvenile camp and was not due to be released for another three months. " 'Where's [my son]?' You guys should know better than I know," Ross recalls saying. "You tell me
where he at."
Nonetheless, the officers said they were looking for a minor on probation and proceeded to search the house. Minutes later Palmdale's public housing inspector arrived and asked Ross to authorize a compliance check. She signed the papers, fearing that if she refused she would lose her rent subsidy. The officers combed over the property, concluded there were no violations, and left.
By the end of 2010, teams of sheriff's deputies and a housing investigator had inspected Ross's home four times. In January 2011 her family woke up to find a black-marker message scrawled across their garage: "I hate Section 8 niggers." Ross called the local TV station, which reported the story. A week later as her son was walking to school, a car full of white men drove up beside him and threw what appeared to be urine on him, yelling, "Dirty Section 8 nigger!"
Fearing for her family's safety, Ross sent her kids to stay with relatives and friends while she tried to find another place to rent. But once landlords learned she was a Section 8 recipient, she says, they wouldn't return her calls. Five months later the family moved into a rental house in Lancaster, where soon after a neighbor alerted Ross to a fire burning in the front yard. Like Williams, she has since moved her family out of the Antelope Valley.
Although his legal practice has made him a wealthy man,
Rex Parris knows what it's like to struggle with poverty. Born and raised in a single-parent home in Lancaster, he says his mother relied on welfare payments to support her family. After "more than a passing relationship with the criminal justice system," he became a devout Christian, graduated from college, attended Southwestern Law School, and was admitted to the State Bar in 1980. In subsequent decades he raised a family and built the R. Rex Parris Law Firm, now an eight-attorney practice that handles personal injury, employment, and business cases. Not long ago he won a $370 million jury award for former employees of Guess? Inc.
In June 2008 - just two months after he was elected mayor - Parris instructed the city council to create a Section 8 commission to pursue a joint powers agreement with Palmdale creating a regional Antelope Valley housing authority. The commission would increase enforcement of Section 8 rules and draft an ordinance to limit the number of business licenses issued to landlords who participate in the subsidy program. Parris asked the council to develop "a means of making it very easy for neighbors to file nuisance lawsuits, with the assistance of the city, against group homes and Section 8 housing that becomes a nuisance, where the owners of the property fail to protect the neighbors."
More passionately, he told the council members, "I don't want there to be any mistake about this: We want to limit the number of Section 8 units. ... They've been dumping [voucher holders] at a much more rapid rate the last few months. They have totally ignored our plight up here, and it's time to go to war."
But two years after taking office Parris's plans for seceding from the Los Angeles County housing authority had been stymied, and the number of subsidized renters in Lancaster was holding steady. His aggravation spilled over at a June 2010 city council meeting, during a presentation by Dorian Jenkins, executive deputy director of the housing authority.
"Currently, 17 percent of L.A. County's Section 8 recipients reside in Lancaster," Parris began. "Doesn't that seem out of balance to you?"
Jenkins replied, "Actually, it reflects to me supply and demand. ... The clients go where there's a supply of housing."
Parris pressed the issue. "Does that mean the housing authority just chooses to ignore all the science that says if you populate the neighborhood with over 30 percent rental, the crime rates ... will increase? That the quality of living in those neighborhoods will diminish? If it gets to 50 percent, the neighborhood becomes unlivable. Are you telling me you ignore that?"
"No sir," Jenkins responded. "I'm saying the housing authority cannot prevent a client from moving anywhere they want to. Federal fair housing laws and HUD's restrictions do not allow us to direct or steer our clients."
Parris's concerns about crime are more than political grandstanding. For at least the past decade, Lancaster has struggled with a high crime rate. By 2006 it was 507 crimes per 10,000 residents - almost 200 points higher than the average in most U.S. cities.
No one argues more forcefully than Ronald D. Smith that crime and Section 8 are related. A former sheriff's deputy and Lancaster's vice mayor, Smith calls Section 8 "a failed program based on poor policy, and it is not managed properly. It is a system that is very, very much abused."
Smith says he's had personal experiences with Section 8 tenants in his Lancaster neighborhood. "I had a Section 8 house next to me, and it was the blight of the neighborhood," he recalls. "[The guy was] a convicted rapist, robber, drug dealing out of the house. It was hell. We sold our house and moved someplace else because of the torment."
As a sheriff's deputy Smith's duties included talking to landlords who were evicting Section 8 tenants. "I saw all the garbage, the trash, the crime - everything that was going on," he says. "We knew when there was dope dealing going on in these homes. ... I saw, with all the Section 8 homes coming in, that the crime rate went through the roof."
Elected to the city council in 2006, Smith focused on eradicating problems that he associated with low-income tenants. "The poor are not all criminals," he says. "But there's a lot of criminals who are poor, and they know how to abuse and manipulate the system. So if you have a high percentage of criminality within a certain sector, there is going to be a higher crime rate."
Smith and Parris are adamant that poor people are coming to the Antelope Valley because the Housing Authority of Los Angeles County is directing them there. Both men claim they've heard that the agency posted signs in its main office encouraging voucher holders to move to Lancaster, but neither official could provide evidence.
Smith's ideas are guided in part by Howard Husock's America's Trillion Dollar Housing Mistake: The Failure of American Housing Policy
, published in 2003 by the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Husock, director of case studies at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, argues that the unintended effect of Section 8 is to transport social problems into working-class communities, which depresses property values.
Parris and Smith also were influenced by "American Murder Mystery," a 2008 article in The Atlantic
that mentioned statistical research by a husband-and-wife team at the University of Memphis. Criminologist W. Richard Janikowski and housing expert Phyllis Betts compared maps of crime incidents and Section 8 rentals in Memphis, and they discovered an overlap. "Nobody would claim vouchers, or any single factor, as the sole cause of rising crime," wrote Hanna Rosin, the article's author. "Still, researchers around the country are seeing the same basic pattern: [housing] projects coming down in inner cities and crime pushing outward, in many cases destabilizing cities or their surrounding areas."
The article made waves, and in response HUD commissioned its own ten-city study of Section 8 and crime patterns. Two and a half years later, in a report titled "Memphis Murder Revisited," researchers at New York University concluded there was "little evidence" that an increase in the number of voucher holders in a tract leads to more crime. Instead, they found, "voucher holders are more likely to move into neighborhoods when crime rates [there] are increasing."
"The widespread public sentiment that crime coincides with Section 8 is fiction," agrees Maria E. Palomares, Lhamon's co-counsel in the Lancaster suit and a staff attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County in Pacoima. "Its persistence in this country is based on entrenched bias against the poor and people of color, not research."
But long before the NYU results refuting the Memphis research appeared, conservative critics of federal housing policy had thrown fuel on the fire. And it burned hot in Lancaster. In 2010 the city's Section 8 Commission - later renamed the Neighborhood Vitalization Commission - began acquiring the names and addresses of Section 8 tenants from the local housing authority, which also provided monthly updates on the number of households dropped from the program. The city council urged sheriff's deputy units to patrol the homes of subsidized renters and monitor their compliance with HUD rules. The council also pressured the housing authority to make truancy by the schoolchildren of Section 8 families a cause for termination. Both Lancaster and Palmdale provided space for the housing investigator's office within their sheriff's department substations, which encouraged information sharing and "ride-alongs" by the inspectors. During the first nine months of 2010, sheriff's deputies accompanied housing authority investigators on 64 percent of their inspections in Lancaster and 71 percent in Palmdale. In the rest of Los Angeles County, this happened only 8 percent of the time.
Vice Mayor Smith got the local congressman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, to request that HUD approve a one-year moratorium on business licenses to landlords in Lancaster who accept Section 8 vouchers. The agency quickly denied the request, expressing concern that a moratorium "could be found to result in an unlawful disparate impact" under the Fair Housing Act (42 U.S.C. §§ 3601-3631) because most of Lancaster's subsidized tenants are African American and/or families with children, both protected groups.
Smith chalked up HUD's response to inside-the-Beltway politics. "The Obama administration, being Democrats and actually believing in federal programs, view any attack on [the programs] as an attack on themselves," he says. "You can interpret those [housing] laws any way you want."
But Smith also makes a case that the formula used to set Section 8 benefit levels ignores differences in the region's housing markets. In Los Angeles County, subsidies are calculated by blending fair-market rents throughout the jurisdiction, which covers all but 18 cities and all unincorporated areas. Currently, a family of four that qualifies for a two-bedroom housing voucher can receive up to $1,319 a month. In Lancaster, however, that's enough to rent a four-bedroom house.
"What do you do when you create a fair-market [rental] rate that is 35 percent lower than it really should be?" Smith asks. "You create a situation where they're coming here in droves."
The civil rights complaint against Lancaster and Palmdale
cites a series of agreements the cities made with the county housing authority, beginning in 2004, to fund three additional Section 8 inspectors. The plaintiffs allege discriminatory intent in Lancaster's creation of special sheriff's deputy units, and in public remarks Mayor Parris made associating Section 8 voucher recipients with rising crime rates.
The plaintiffs contend that both cities encouraged a policy of harassment and intimidation, putting Section 8 tenants under constant surveillance in an effort to force them from the Antelope Valley. This, they argue, violates the federal Fair Housing Act (42 U.S.C. §§ 3604, 3617), the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (Cal. Gov't Codes §§ 11135 and 12955), and the equal protection clauses of the federal and state constitutions.
Lead plaintiffs counsel Lhamon, who came to Public Counsel from the ACLU of Southern California, calls the actions taken by Lancaster a textbook example of intentional discrimination. "If anybody can bring that kind of case and win it," she says, "we can here."
Defense counsel at Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth of Newport Beach argued in a motion to dismiss that the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate they were injured by the activities of Lancaster and Palmdale, or that the cities were vicariously liable for actions taken by the county housing authority or the sheriff's department.
But the complaint also includes a claim under the "disparate impact" theory, which uses statistical analysis to address subtle forms of discrimination that are "fair in form, but discriminatory in operation." (Griggs v. Duke Power Co.
, 401 U.S. 424, 431 (1971). [See "Preserving a Legal Theory"]
The NAACP's involvement in the case apparently made government officials at every level snap to attention. After receiving a demand letter, for instance, Los Angeles County sought negotiations with the plaintiffs. And shortly after the complaint was filed, the county board of supervisors suspended funding of the additional housing inspectors in the Antelope Valley. Sheriff Leroy Baca released records related to his deputies' cooperation with housing authority inspectors. HUD notified Lancaster that it would investigate the accusations - putting at risk hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants to the city. And the U.S. Justice Department announced it would launch a probe of race discrimination in the Antelope Valley.
In January the plaintiffs negotiated a three-year agreement with the county. The county pledged that sheriff's deputies would no longer routinely accompany housing inspectors on Section 8 checks, nor would the housing authority accept or provide funds for additional inspectors in Palmdale and Lancaster. The county also agreed to stop supplying the cities with names and addresses of subsidized renters.
A week later, Judge Wright denied the defendants' motion to dismiss - on all counts. Wright found that the cities' original agreements with the county for additional housing inspectors "sufficiently state the predicates for vicarious liability," and that the defendants' argument that they lacked authority over the inspectors or the sheriff's deputies "fails to consider [their] direct liability."
Within days, Palmdale agreed to settle. "There was really no penalty to settling," Mayor James C. Ledford says. "There was no admission of guilt. There was no financial penalty. Nothing was substantiated as far as allegations. But [the plaintiffs] had 21 attorneys working time cards they ultimately will want [the court] to assign to somebody. It doesn't serve the taxpayers. There's no end game here."
Parris, however, denounced Palmdale's decision to capitulate, saying it "gives comfort to criminals." The plaintiffs, he says, have little evidence of racial discrimination. "From what the complaint alleges, there is only one person [in Lancaster] who says [she] was harassed. One person. We have no facts supporting anything else."
In March, Lancaster defiantly filed a bias complaint with HUD, accusing the county housing authority of "unlawful and discriminatory racial steering practices." Attorneys from the Stradling Yocca firm argued that the influx of Section 8 recipients so strained Lancaster's health care system that "individuals have been denied necessary medical services because such services are simply unavailable." And since 70 percent of the voucher holders who live in Lancaster are African American and 14 percent are Latino, they concluded, the county's actions constitute "de facto discrimination because those actions have a disparate impact" on a protected class.
Lhamon calls Lancaster's administrative complaint - which HUD has since dismissed - "an unwise step" for a city under federal investigation and embroiled in a lawsuit. The move, she says, "points to its racial animus and the city's own bias."
Later that month Lhamon filed a third amended complaint in federal court, focusing solely on Lancaster's alleged civil rights violations.
Parris maintains that he won't settle the lawsuit, although the city's legal defense has already cost $1 million. "It goes to a fundamental principal of allowing people who are at least connected to criminal activity to thwart the city's ability to enforce law," he says.
The mayor says Section 8 enforcement checks in the Antelope Valley have all but stopped since the county withdrew funding for additional housing inspectors. And because Parris insists crime increased at the same time, he has turned to the sheriff's department for help. "Instead of it being just simply 'Section 8, you lose your voucher [for program infractions],' now we're looking at criminal activity and we're going to send people to jail," he says. "Who won? Nobody did."
Parris adds, "I do not think the mothers who are getting Section 8 - and who are being put into a situation where they're renting out to parolees or doing whatever criminal activity they need to do to raise their kids - should be considered criminals. I just don't. But now the county's made it so there's no alternative [to stepping up police activity]. ... The only people who lost on this are Section 8 recipients."
As a multi-millionaire who has just survived a brush with cancer, Parris says, he has nothing to fear and will do what he thinks is right. "What can they do? I will continue to say what I see and believe and know to be true. I don't care who it offends."
Victoria Schlesinger is a contributing editor at