Karen Coleman and her husband, Thomas Coleman, section 8 housing voucher recipients, look out the window of their home in Antioch, Calif., Friday, Dec. 12, 2008. "A lot of people are moving out here looking for a better place to live," said Karen Coleman, a mother of three who moved here five years ago from a blighted neighborhood in nearby Pittsburg. "We are trying to raise our kids like everyone else. But they don't want us here." (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
ANTIOCH, Calif. – As more and more black renters began moving into this mostly white San Francisco Bay Area suburb a few years ago, neighbors started complaining about loud parties, mean pit bulls, blaring car radios, prostitution, drug dealing and muggings of schoolchildren.
In 2006, as the influx reached its peak, the police department formed a special crime-fighting unit to deal with the complaints, and authorities began cracking down on tenants in federally subsidized housing.
Now that police unit is the focus of lawsuits by black families who allege the city of 100,000 is orchestrating a campaign to drive them out.
"A lot of people are moving out here looking for a better place to live," said Karen Coleman, a mother of three who came here five years ago from a blighted neighborhood in nearby Pittsburgh. "We are trying to raise our kids like everyone else. But they don't want us here."
City officials deny the allegations in the lawsuits, which were filed last spring and seek unspecified damages.
Across the country, similar tensions have simmered when federally subsidized renters escaped run-down housing projects and violent neighborhoods by moving to nicer communities in suburban Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles.
An increasing number of poor families receiving federal rental assistance have been moving here in recent years, partly because of the housing crisis.
A growing number of landlords were seeking a guaranteed source of revenue in a city hard-hit by foreclosures. They began offering their Antioch homes to low-income tenants in the HUD Section 8 housing program, which pays about two-thirds of every tenant's rent.
Between 2000 and 2007, Antioch's black population nearly doubled from 8,824 to 16,316. And the number of Antioch renters receiving federal subsidies climbed almost 50 percent between 2003 and 2007 to 1,582, the majority of them black.
Longtime homeowners complained that the new arrivals brought crime and other troubles. In 2006, violent crime in Antioch shot up about 19 percent from the year before, while property crime went down slightly.
"In some neighborhoods, it was complete madness," said longtime resident David Gilbert, a black retiree who organized the United Citizens of Better Neighborhoods watch group. "They were under siege."
So the Antioch police in mid-2006 created the Community Action Team, which focused on complaints of trouble at low-income renters' homes.
Police sent 315 complaints about subsidized tenants to the Contra Costa Housing Authority, which manages the federal program in the city, and urged the agency to evict many of them for lease violations such as drug use or gun possession. Lawyers for the tenants said 70 percent of the eviction recommendations were aimed at black renters. The housing authority turned down most of the requests.
Coleman said the police, after a complaint from a neighbor, showed up at her house one morning in 2007 to check on her husband, who was on parole for drunken driving. She said they searched the house and returned twice more that summer to try to find out whether the couple had violated any terms of their lease that could lead to eviction.
The Colemans were also slapped with a restraining order after a neighbor accused them of "continually harassing and threatening their family," according to court papers. The Colemans said a judge later rescinded the order.
Coleman and four other families are suing Antioch, accusing police of engaging in racial discrimination and conducting illegal searches without warrants. They have asked a federal judge to make their suit a class-action on behalf of hundreds of other black renters. Another family has filed a lawsuit accusing the city's leaders of waging a campaign of harassment to drive them out.
Police referred questions to the city attorney's office.
City Attorney Lynn Tracy Nerland denied any discrimination on the part of police and said officers were responding to crime reports in troubled neighborhoods when they discovered that a large number of the troublemakers were receiving federal subsidies.
"They are responding to real problems," Nerland said.
Joseph Villarreal, the housing authority chief, said the problems in Antioch mirror tensions seen nationally when poor renters move into neighborhoods they can afford only with government help.
"One of the goals of the programs is to de-concentrate poverty," Villarreal said. "There are just some people who don't want to spend public money that way."
Tensions like those afflicting Antioch have drawn scholars and law enforcement officials to debate whether crime follows subsidized renters out of the tenements to the suburbs.
Susan Popkin, a researcher at the nonprofit Urban Institute, said she does not believe that is the case. But the tensions, she said, are real.
"That can be a recipe for anxiety," she said. "It can really change the demographics of a neighborhood."