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High Desert Fair Housing Claims Settled for $2M

LOS ANGLES (CN) - The Justice Department has settled claims that Los Angeles County Housing Authority and two cities in the Antelope Valley discriminated against hundreds of African-Americans who received housing assistance.

Palmdale, Lancaster and the housing authority agreed Monday to compensate black residents in low-income subsidized, or Section 8, housing after prosecutors filed a federal complaint alleging a campaign to force residents out of the cities.

According to the Justice Department, city officials contracted with the housing authority to spend "substantial financial resources to voucher-program enforcement efforts" and enlisted LA Sheriff Department Deputies to assist them.

Deputies harassed black people in subsidized housing, searching homes with help from housing authority investigators who descended on homes with as many as nine deputy sheriffs in tow, the Justice Department had alleged.

In a prior complaint against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, prosecutors said that deputies would arrive at homes for compliance checks dressed in SWAT gear.

The defendants "fueled public opposition to the voucher program by making disparaging statements about voucher-program participants and discouraged landlords from renting to voucher holders," the Justice Department said in a statement.

"There was no legitimate law enforcement or programmatic justification for these types of extraordinary enforcement efforts," the department added.

U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker of the Central District of California called the discrimination "fundamentally wrong" and "inconsistent with American values of freedom and equality."

"This settlement, together with an earlier settlement with the sheriff's department, will ensure it does not recur, and will also provide more than $2.6 million to compensate those harmed," Decker said.

The Justice Department estimates it will take over a year to process the compensation fund.

The housing authority has agreed to reform the way it enforces the voucher program and has put on hold unannounced compliance checks of Section 8 voucher holders. It will no longer share personal information about people who receive housing assistance with the sheriff's department or the High Desert cities.

The Justice Department said the alleged victims will have voucher terminations removed from their public housing records. Those who lost their vouchers as result of the discriminatory conduct will again receive assistance, the Justice Department said.

As Antelope Valley housing became more affordable in the 1980s, black people and Latinos moved in. Racial tensions increased with a series of hate crimes in Palmdale in the 1990s, the Justice Department says in its complaint.

The Justice Department settled with the sheriff's department to make across-the-board changes in the way it polices the Antelope Valley. The federal investigation revealed evidence of widespread discrimination, harassment and intimidation against African Americans in subsidized housing.

Antelope Valley has the highest rate of racially motivated hate crimes in Los Angeles County. As early as the 1960s minority families were shut out of the area by racially motivated housing practices, the Justice Department said.

Lancaster contracted with the housing authority from 2004 until June 2011 to enforce the voucher program. Palmdale contracted with the authority from 2005 to June 2011.

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