Saturday, December 12, 2015

He Said/She Said Lawsuit Anticipated Against Public Housing Agency After Poor Female Tenants Say Managing Agent Sought Sexual Favors In Exchange For Rent Breaks; Accused's Response: "It's A Witch Hunt"

In Hickory, North Carolina, The Charlotte Observer reports:
  • The public housing tenant was unemployed and needed money to pay rent last year when she said a Hickory housing official started calling and visiting her home uninvited.

    He suggested he could help her with rent money in return for sex, she said. Despite her reluctance, she said, he got what he wanted.

    “I was afraid (the Housing Authority) would retaliate against me,” said the woman, who is a single mother. “I was shocked and felt, ‘If I say no, what’s going to happen to me?’”

    The allegations are summarized in a complaint letter three former Hickory Public Housing Authority employees sent to federal officials and that is part of an anticipated lawsuit.

    Legal experts and advocacy groups said the Hickory case fits a familiar pattern where men target poor, single mothers who are fearful of losing affordable housing.
    “Instances of harassment in recent years have become more egregious,” said Gustavo Velasquez, HUD assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity. “We need to clarify the problem with housing providers. We want them to have sanctions and protocols. We want them to report criminal behavior.”

    But the Hickory case also illustrates how local public housing agencies fail to detect and eliminate employees suspected of preying on residents.

    The accused employee has worked at six different housing agencies in the Carolinas and Virginia, including the Charlotte Housing Authority. Despite being placed on a “do not rehire” list after he left Charlotte, he went on to work at other housing authorities, including in Statesville, where he works today.
    In Hickory, a female tenant produced text messages, recorded conversations and even her child as a witness to corroborate her allegations, according to the 10-page letter signed by former employees.

    She and other Hickory public housing tenants are part of an anticipated lawsuit alleging former Property Operations Manager Montele Burton sexually harassed them. Greensboro attorney Craig Hensel, who represents the women, said at least six tenants have come forward so far to allege they were sexually harassed by Burton or other employees.

    In separate interviews, three of the women accused Burton of making suggestive comments, threatening them and offering to pay their rent in exchange for sexual favors. The Observer is not publishing their names because they still live in public housing and fear reprisals.

    The women did not report the incidents to police. That is common in such cases, said Oliveri, the professor, who is also a former attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division. Prosecutors are reluctant to seek charges because it is difficult to define when sexual harassment becomes criminal, she said.

    In one case, a woman said she was struggling financially in the fall of 2014 when Burton started texting and calling her late at night. The woman said she relied on Hickory’s public housing agency for an apartment that cost her $50 a month.

    She said Burton promised to help her. “I did what I had to do,” the woman said. “I have been homeless before. I didn’t want to be homeless again.”

    By January 2015, she said she wanted to break off the relationship. Burton threatened her and said he had the power to evict her from her home, she said.

    Hensel, the attorney, said the woman recently filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which helps enforce fair employment laws.

    She said she once worked for $9 per hour cleaning vacant units for the Housing Authority, but her hours were drastically reduced after she told agency leaders about her relationship with Burton. Some weeks, she said, she received no work at all.

    The single mother who feared eviction said she was struggling to pay her $50 monthly rent when Burton propositioned her in late September or early October of 2014.

    “He said ‘I can help you, if you help me,’” the woman recalled. “He said ‘We’re all adults here. I think you know what I mean.’”

    She said she agreed to perform sex acts and Burton made several rent payments on her behalf. He swore her to secrecy, she said.

    ‘A witch hunt’

    Burton, who has not been criminally charged, defended himself in two interviews with the Observer. He said he is the victim of unfair attacks orchestrated by former Hickory co-workers and tenants who didn’t pay their rent on time.

    It’s a witch hunt,” Burton said. “This is the art of retaliation.”

    Burton said problems started when he refused to help a group of disgruntled co-workers who wanted the Hickory Housing Authority’s executive director, Alanda Richardson, fired.

    Tenants, Burton said, seek revenge because he was put in charge of making sure rent payments were timely. He said he enforced the rules more strictly than his predecessor and threatened to take several tenants to court for eviction proceedings.
For more, see Preyed on in public housing (Female tenants say former Hickory housing official sought sex for rent; Attorney: Six women allege harassment by agency employees; HUD proposes new rules to address national problem).

See generally, Sexual Harassment & The Fair Housing Act.

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