Residents of the Gilmor Homes housing projects in Baltimore, Maryland, where women have accused housing officials of sexual harassment. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Complaints by women living in Baltimore public housing about sexual misconduct from housing authority officials signal a larger problem.

Women living in public housing have a difficult enough time keeping men out of their homes who’ve threatened to abuse them sexually. A 2002 study from the sociologist and researcher Walter DeKeserdy found that “Women in public housing experience more intimate partner violence, including sexual violence, than the general population.”

And yet, there are certain men that women in public housing can’t make persona non grata, even when those men display sexually threatening behavior, because the men work for the housing authority responsible for helping provide the women shelter. Allegations and evidence of sexual attacks by housing officials have surfaced in various cities in recent years.

One disturbing, major case of this is playing out right now in Baltimore, where 20 women living in public housing complexes have joined a federal lawsuit against the city’s housing authority over accusations that maintenance workers have been demanding sexual favors in exchange for repair work. Attorneys on the case say there are potentially hundreds more women who’ve been subjected to this as well. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is investigating the allegations, as is the state’s attorney’s office.

The lawsuit states that executives in the city’s housing authority either ignored these complaints for years, or discouraged women from pressing forward with them. Women in the suit say they’ve had to go without heat and live with broken appliances because they refused maintenance workers’ sexual requests. In public housing, residents often have to rely on housing-authority staff for repair work either because they can’t afford their own handymen, or because of rules restricting them to staff help.

But Baltimore isn’t the only city where public housing authorities are responding, or failing to respond, to sexual harassment complaints. The number of similar cases reported over recent years has reached the point where there seems to be a much more widespread problem that is not being properly reported. In the Baltimore case, attorneys say other women have come forth with stories, but are afraid to go on record. Women in such precarious positions have real reason to think they could get evicted for complaining.

U.S. Department of Justice civil rights chief Vanita Gupta pointed to this problem in remarks she gave earlier this year commemorating the 47th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. Said Gupta:

We continue to see the scourge of sexual harassment in housing. In three recent settlements, the allegations were similar. We alleged that an owner or the property managers engaged in a pattern or practice of sexually harassing female tenants and prospective tenants. All three cases involved horrific conduct. Our complaints alleged that the defendants made constant unwanted sexual comments and advances toward their female tenants; exposed themselves; requested sexual acts for reduced rents, delayed evictions, or other housing benefits; and took adverse actions when those sexual overtures were resisted.

Sadly, many of the tenants in these properties felt that their only choice was to endure the harassment or be forced to live with their children on the street.

Below are brief synopses of a few cases of “horrific conduct,” where public housing authority officials were accused of trying to engage in sexual quid pro quo, and/or ignoring women’s complaints about it:

Kansas City, Kansas

In this lawsuit, filed by the DOJ on October 26, 2015, Victor L. Hernandez, a former hearing officer for the Kansas City Housing Authority, is accused of making sexual advances against two women who had applied for public housing and were rejected. In Hernandez’s role, he helped rejected applicants file appeals so they could be reconsidered for admission into the public housing program. One woman, Daneasha Davis, was in his office discussing her appeal with him when he began telling her that her Facebook pictures were sexy. He then, according to the complaint, “unzipped his pants, exposed himself to her, and asked her inappropriate and offensive sexual questions about men’s genitalia.”

Another woman, Autumn Weaver, was discussing appealing an eviction notice with Hernandez in his office when she noticed he was looking down her shirt. Then, according to the complaint, he started showing her a pornographic video on his phone and and began asking her sexually explicit questions. Hernandez “implicitly conditioned the outcome of Weaver’s grievance hearing regarding her possible eviction on her enduring his sexual conduct during the meeting in his office and/or otherwise engaging in sexual conduct with him.”

Hernandez was fired after admitting to improper behavior with Davis. The DOJ is seeking monetary damages for the women and a court order for the housing authority to take up preventive measures for the future.

Scotland County, North Carolina

Here, the DOJ joined a lawsuit filed in April 2014 in which women in Scotland County said two employees of Southeastern Community and Family Services were asking for sexual favors in return for securing public housing. That case was settled this past July for $2.7 million—“the largest monetary settlement ever agreed to in a sexual harassment case brought by the Justice Department under the Fair Housing Act,” reads a Justice Department press release.

The two housing employees accused of sexual wrongdoing, John Wesley and Eric Pender, have denied that they engaged in this illicit behavior, but by consent decree they are still now barred from handling any Section 8 or public housing transactions. Even if they become private landlords, they must retain an independent manager, approved by the federal government, to handle the rental transactions.

“It is deeply offensive and illegal to sexually harass women who are seeking housing for themselves and their families,” said DOJ’s civil rights chief Gupta of the case.  

Bossier City, Louisiana

In this case, brought by a woman in Bossier City, which neighbors Shreveport, Louisiana, a male maintenance worker for the local housing authority allegedly fondled the woman’s breasts and sexually assaulted her during a visit in 2008 to repair her kitchen sink. When she told the maintenance worker she would report him, he allegedly groped and harassed her on other occasions, to the point where she ended up obtaining a protective order from police against him.

Aware that the worker had keys to her apartment, she asked the housing authority to change her locks, which the housing office denied, according to the complaint. The woman felt insecure enough that she moved her three children to her parents’ house for a few months. Read the complaint here for a litany of other creepy behavior by the worker that crossed the woman’s boundaries.

The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, which filed the case in 2011, said the problem extended beyond just the maintenance worker in question, saying the Bossier City Housing Authority “turned a blind eye to the fact that its own employee was endangering its tenants, in violation of federal law.”

The case was settled under confidential terms in 2012, but during the course of the investigation, the fair housing center found evidence that the maintenance worker had assaulted other women tenants, and that the housing authority had “repeatedly engaged in sex discrimination in violation of the Fair Housing Act.”

This goes to show that when women in these circumstances bravely come forward, it’s sometimes an indication of a problem that has been festering without being addressed for some time. Morgan Williams, general counsel for the National Fair Housing Alliance who worked on the Bossier City case, tells Citylab that he thinks the problem is much more widespread than what these few cases indicate.

“Victims of harassment and their families have a lot to lose if they are evicted, as it can mean that they lose their housing subsidy,” says Williams. “The threat of both eviction and physical retaliation mean there’s often a lot at risk when victims of harassment step forward with enforcement.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently proposed a new rule to protect women in public housing in these situations. It seeks to define two specific kinds of violations: “quid pro quo harassment” and “hostile environment harassment.” The rule is open to public comment right now, through December 21. As HUD explained the need for the new rule in a recent blog:

The unique vulnerability of poor women makes them targets of sexual harassment in their home. Immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, single mothers, and persons with disabilities may also experience increased vulnerabilities. Housing providers may coerce women into sexual acts, threatening to put the woman and her children out on the street if they do not comply with their demands. …

This rule is simple: no one should be subject to harassment and especially not in your house, which should be your sanctuary.

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