In an abrupt reversal, the city of Lancaster voted late Tuesday to be more welcoming toward minorities receiving public housing assistance, ending a discrimination lawsuit that it had steadfastly fought for more than a year.
"We're going to put down our rifles, pick up our shovels and grow a community," Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said Wednesday after a news conference explaining the city's position.
The Community Action League and the California State Conference of the NAACP agreed to drop their discrimination lawsuit after Lancaster agreed to promote fair housing for all and to review existing ordinances and regulations that may be discriminatory.
"We've said from the day we filed this lawsuit that we want Lancaster to be one community where everyone is welcomed," said V. Jessie Smith, a founding member of The Community Action League, which, along with the NAACP, sued the city in June 2011.
"Today, we stand with Lancaster in its commitment to end the rhetoric of conflict and help this community heal," he added. "This is a significant representation that Lancaster is open to anyone - regardless of race, nationality, color or creed."
Ron Hasson of the California State Conference of the NAACP said, "Lancaster has committed in the agreement to respect the rights of families to live where they choose, no matter how they pay their rent."
"We wanted city officials to understand that the way they talked about families, and the actions they took, too often brought fear into families' homes and their hearts," he added.
In their lawsuit, the community organizations accused both Lancaster and Palmdale of harassing recipients of federal Section 8 housing vouchers - mostly black and Latino families - by having sheriff's deputies accompany Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles (HACoLA) investigators on routine compliance checks of their rented homes.
More than 2,400 families in Lancaster receive Section 8 housing vouchers to help pay their rent.
Both Palmdale and the county Board of Supervisors agreed to a settlement back in January that prevented sheriff's deputies from participating in further compliance checks unless HACoLA investigators can document a legitimate threat to their safety.
As recently as August, however, Parris continued to defend the practice, saying courts have upheld 96 percent of the Section 8 voucher terminations prompted by the now-defunct "fraud investigation program."
He called the program "indispensable" for ensuring that only qualified people were receiving federal rental assistance, and added HACoLA should reimburse the city for the $400,000 it had spent defending itself against the lawsuit.
Under the agreement announced Wednesday, Lancaster agreed to let the Community Action League and NAACP participate in a soon-to-be-created "community working group" that would review existing city ordinances and regulations to determine whether they cause an "unjustified disparate impact on Section 8 tenants and landlords" and report their findings to the City Council.
"We have not solved the Section 8 issue," Parris said. "We just recognize that there are bigger issues that we can solve.
"We didn't settle anything," he added. "We just agreed to stop fighting."
Parris said he had change of heart after having dinner with members of the The Community Action League at his home and discovering they had more in common than they had differences.
"We want to keep our neighborhoods integrated," he said. "We also agree that people could be treated a little more respectfully than they have been, and that people would cooperate more with law enforcement and everybody else if that happened."