Public Advocates and Bay Area Legal Aid released a report last month accusing the CAT of unfairly targeting African-Americans on the Section 8 subsidized housing program. The report alleges that African-Americans are four times more likely than whites to be the targets of CAT investigations.
The groups presented their report at the Dec. 18 City Council meeting, during which Elizabeth Voigt of Public Advocates said, "We look forward to working with the city in this process" to fix the discrimination problems.
But city officials were in no mood to work with the groups on anything. Mayor Don Freitas blasted them for putting out a report filled with what he called "downright lies," and defended the CAT for its effectiveness in responding to residents' complaints about problem neighbors.
At Saturday's standing-room-only UCBN meeting in the community room of the Antioch Police Station building, Gilbert said he invited Voigt to speak at the meeting. She initially agreed, he said, then backed out.
"She had a legal brief that came up that she had to take care of," said Gilbert. "I'm disappointed, because if you are going to accuse an entire community and police department of racism, you should have the guts to be here."
Also not in attendance was Police Chief Jim Hyde, who has attended previous UCBN meetings. Gilbert said Hyde had been advised by the city attorney to not attend due to the possibility of litigation being filed by the advocacy organizations against the city on behalf of several African-American women.
In contrast to Voigt's offer to work with the city on the CAT issue, Gilbert and Antioch resident Iris Archuleta, who are both African-American, said they had contacted Voigt numerous times, asking to meet with her and communicate the concerns of Antioch residents about problem Section 8 tenants. They said she never took them up on the offer.
"Bay Area Legal Aid and Public Advocates are demanding that our community accept Section 8 tenants whose behavior presents a clear and present danger to our neighborhoods," said Gilbert. "We were asking for fairness in this investigation - listen to the other side of the story. In any type of investigation, you listen to both sides of the story. They never even tried to do that.
"In my opinion, this was nothing more than a witch hunt. They took some stuff out … and threw it against a wall to see what sticks. None of it is sticking."
Archuleta said she called Voigt six times. "I begged her to meet with African-Americans in Antioch and see the other side of the story before they made this blanket accusation, and they refused to do so," she said.
"I am not one that feels that everything that happens is race. I'm also not stupid enough
to think that racism doesn't exist in this city. But the most blatantly racist attitude I have seen in years is for Public Advocates to tell African-Americans in this community how they should feel about other African-Americans."
Since the advocacy groups' investigation was based on police reports involving African-American Section 8 tenants, Gilbert said he took a look at the same reports, which are open to the public (with names redacted), and found them troubling - not because of racial discrimination but because of the criminal activity they revealed.
In one home there was a 16-year-old girl who had tried to run away because attempts were made to force her into prostitution, Gilbert said. In many homes, people not supposed to be living there were causing problems in the community.
Some were murder suspects, two were involved in the mini-riot at Gas City last year, one was caught burglarizing nearby homes. In one home, crack cocaine and drug paraphernalia were found. A paroled sex offender was discovered in another.
In many of the cases where a Section 8 home was searched, the CAT was legally entitled to do so because a person on parole or probation had listed that home as his or her residence, said Gilbert. "We are not saying we don't want Section 8 people," said Gilbert. "We just want them to behave themselves. Respect your neighborhood and there should not be any issues."
Also at the meeting was Roger Henry, who recently stepped down as president of the East County NAACP. He said that his group has not taken a position on the CAT racism charges.
"I looked at the records; I couldn't discern a pattern of discrimination against Section 8 tenants," said Henry. "I wasn't in a position where I could say the Antioch Police Department is racist.
"What I can tell you is we received numerous complaints alleging racism. I couldn't determine that that actually occurred. I'm not saying the Antioch Police Department is racist. Our organization has not ever said the Antioch Police Department was racist. What we have said is we have received numerous complaints, and that's a fact. Whether they have validity or not has yet to be determined."
But the NAACP is concerned that Section 8 tenants have not been informed of their rights and the charges against them when they are called into hearings to determine whether they have violated the conditions of their subsidized housing and should be removed from the program.
"You need to know what you're being accused of," said Henry. "In the cases I was called to advocate for, they came unprepared by being completely unaware of what the charges were that they were faced with. They were unprepared to defend themselves against those charges. I don't think that's fair."
Henry pointed out that most Section 8 tenants are law-abiding citizens not causing any problems in their neighborhoods. "So I agree with Gary and UCBN that it's not about race," he said. "It's really about conduct. What I am trying to guard against is the prevalence of an almost vigilante attitude toward anyone on Section 8."
The other speaker at Saturday's meeting was Bruce Smargiasso, who started work three months ago overseeing the Section 8 program for the Contra Costa Housing Authority (CCHA). He said there should be no reason that tenants are unaware of the charges against them at the hearing because before that, they meet with a caseworker who lets them know about complaints that have been filed against them.
He said the authority received 100 complaints about Section 8 tenants from Antioch residents last year, the most from any city in the county. Just under 80 termination hearings were conducted with about half resulting in tenants being removed from the Section 8 program, he said.
But Smargiasso, who jokingly referred to himself as "the sacrificial lamb" sent to the meeting because CCHA Director Joseph Villareal had another commitment, was quick to admit that his department has problems. His agency was fined by the federal Housing and Urban Development Department last year for mismanagement.
"I'm not going to tell you Contra Costa Housing Authority has done a great job," said Smargiasso. "I would not be the third director of Section 8 in four years - we would not be having this meeting - if there wasn't fault on our side."
But he promised to turn things around, saying that dead wood was being weeded out of the department, filing systems were being updated, and anyone with problems regarding suspected Section 8 tenants could call or e-mail him. His phone number is 957-7090 and his e-mail is email@example.com.
The other major topic of discussion at the meeting was the decision by the County Board of Supervisors to limit criminal background checks for prospective Section 8 tenants to one year. Smargiasso said three-year background checks are the norm, but that he recommends five-year background checks.
Residents were encouraged to e-mail the county supervisors, asking them to lengthen the period for criminal background checks for Section 8 applicants.
Gilbert also took a shot at Supervisor Federal Glover, saying that Glover had been unresponsive to residents' concerns about Section 8 problem tenants. Gilbert added that that supervisorial neglect could be rectified this November because Glover is up for re-election. That suggestion was met with strong applause by the more than 100 people in attendance.
The next UCBN meeting is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 16 at 1 p.m. in the community room of the Police Department building, Second and L streets.