Renting While Black - Antioch Tenants Charge Police with Campaign of Intimidation

Oct 28, 2008
Rachel Swain

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

All Mary Scott wanted was a quiet place to raise her girls. With high-ranking schools, low crime rates and plenty of affordable housing, Antioch seemed to fit the bill. That was before the police tried to run her out of town.

"When I first moved here things were smooth like I had expected," says Scott, who has four daughters and is fighting cancer. "Then I got bombarded by prejudice."

Scott is not alone: A federal class-action lawsuit filed against the city of Antioch in July charges that the Antioch Police Department engaged in a campaign of intimidation and harassment against African Americans who rent subsidized housing in the East-Bay suburb.

"A few years ago, the ACLU launched an effort to stop police pulling over people for driving while Black," says Alan Schlosser, legal director at the ACLU of Northern California. "Now, the problem in Antioch appears to be the police targeting you for renting while Black."

The five women plaintiffs in the lawsuit are represented by the ACLU of Northern California together with the Impact Fund, Public Advocates, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the law firm of Bingham McCutchen LLP .

The story began as the subprime mortgage crisis rolled through Antioch. The suburb was the hardest hit in the Bay Area, with almost one-third of homeowners facing foreclosure in some parts of town. The empty houses led to a glut of affordable housing, enabling low-income renters to use federal ("Section 8") vouchers to lease houses in formerly high-rent areas. As the community's demographics began to shift, Antioch homeowners complained to the City Council about "residents receiving federal housing assistance dragging the city down." The city responded by creating the Community Action Team (CAT), an arm of the police department, ostensibly to monitor "quality-of-life" issues.

But, according to the lawsuit, CAT's real mission was clear: "to force African-American Section 8 households to move out of Antioch and to discourage any new Section 8 households from locating there."

Mary Scott was nine-months pregnant when CAT officers first banged on her door, looking for her children's father, who was visiting at the time. When Scott asked for a warrant, they said they didn't need one.

"I didn't know if it was true or not, I'd never been in trouble in my life," says Scott, who was on maternity leave from her job at Washington Mutual. She says the officers threatened to handcuff her and make her lie on the floor if she didn't consent to a search, so she and her toddler watched in terror as police rifled through her closets.

CAT officers didn't stop there. Claiming that Scott's boyfriend was living with her illegally, they complained to the housing authority, which terminated Scott's benefits but later rescinded the decision. They also harassed Scott's landlord, threatening legal action if he didn't evict her.

"It never crossed my mind to evict," said the landlord, Riaz Petras. "The police should go after people who bring crime in the neighborhood, not good people who're struggling to make ends meet."

Scott's experience was echoed across the city: According to the lawsuit, officers routinely conducted illegal searches, solicited complaints from neighbors, coerced landlords into making evictions, and pressured the housing authority to terminate vouchers. Two-thirds of families targeted by CAT were African Americans, who constitute 14 percent of Antioch's population. African Americans represent 56 percent of households on Section 8, but 70 percent of complaints brought to the housing authority by CAT target African American families.

"It's clear that the police were trying to find ways to make problems for these tenants," says Schlosser. Karen Coleman says she joined the lawsuit after police handcuffed her and searched her house, terrifying her children. She says CAT officers asked neighbors to submit surveillance reports and went to her husband's workplace, trolling for information.

"The police should keep things calm, not create more chaos," says Coleman. "Families and young children should be able to live in their communities without being afraid of the police."

Rachel Swain is a former ACLU of Northern California Communications Director.