Women Are Being Sexually Harassed By Their Landlords and Property Owners

Image via AP.

Every day since October, the news cycle has been flooded with
stories of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. But
a new report
BBC sheds light on another, potentially even more
pervasive form of misconduct: The kind that takes place where
women live.

According to the report, hundreds of state and federal lawsuits
alleging everything from sexual remarks to rape are filed each
year against landlords, property owners, superintendents and
maintenance workers—people whose favor is all but mandatory for
peaceable living.

“In employment, you leave. It’s horrible, but you can leave and
go home,” Kelly Clarke, a supervising lawyer at the Fair
Housing Project of Legal Aid of North Carolina, told the
outlet. “This is somebody who can invade your home.”

Khristen Sellers, for example, thought she was getting her life
on track in 2008 when a North Carolina housing agency called
Four-County Community Services offered her the chance to move
into a three-bedroom trailer home after she was released from
prison. The place was subsidized by the Housing Choice Voucher
Program, and Sellers qualified relatively quickly. It did,
however, need some repairs, which required an inspector from
the agency to first take a look. From BBC:

Sellers remembers the first time the agency’s inspector, a
former North Carolina state police officer named Eric Pender,
came to the property with a clipboard in hand. As she
continued to clean, she says the conversation quickly turned
from the house to Sellers’ personal life.

“’Where’s your boyfriend?’ ‘Why you don’t have a man here
cleaning?’” Sellers says he asked her. “And I’m like, ‘I
don’t have time for a man, I just came out of prison, I’m
trying to get my life right.’”

Undeterred, Sellers says Pender asked her if she “gives head”
or if she’d ever been paid for sex, implying that his
signature on the inspection was the only thing standing
between her and a place to live. At one point, she says he
called her into the bathroom under the pretence of showing
her a needed repair. She says he pulled her in by her hips,
blocked the doorway and took out his penis. She managed to
push him out of the way.

Sellers worried she would lose her voucher if she complained,
but the incidents kept occurring. She confided in a colleague,
who told Pender’s boss, John Wesley, what was going on. Instead
of addressing the situation, Wesley simply told Pender about
the accusations, who in turn told Sellers that he knew that
she’d complained.

“If I go tell somebody he said that, he’ll say ‘No, I didn’t.’
Who gonna look like the liar?” Sellers said. “I just didn’t
know what to do at that point and I needed somewhere to stay.”

Despite multiple similar complaints against him, Pender kept
his job at Four-County. Not only that, but Sellers’ voucher was
terminated, allegedly over the condition of her trailer—the
trailer she was trying to fix in the first place.

“This is clear-cut retaliation,” Clarke told local news outlets
at the time. “They’re targeting Khristen to scare the other
women into keeping quiet.”

Eventually it was revealed that Wesley, too, was harassing the
agency’s clients. By the time HUD eventually became aware of
the complaints, a total of 71 women had come forward with
accusations against the two men, in many cases reporting the
behavior of one to the other without knowing about the
allegations against both. It took until 2015 for them to both
be fired.

Data on sexual harassment in housing is relatively scarce, but
the BBC reports
, advocates generally agree that poor women
and women of color are disproportionately affected,
particularly if they don’t speak English or are fleeing
domestic violence. And the numbers that are available are
likely deceptively low: In 2016, fair housing organizations
documented 137 complaints of sexual harassment from clients;
the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development acted on
28 cases, and HUD-funded housing assistance programs filed 130

These numbers, though, are likely not representative of the
actual number of sexual harassment cases that occur around the
country, since a single complaint often reveals dozens of
additional victims.

“Finding one victim often leads to finding two, six, 16, 23—in
many of these cases we uncover ongoing harassment of many women
over a period of years,” says Sara Pratt, the former deputy
assistant secretary for Enforcement and Programs at HUD.

“That is unfortunately all too common.”

Read the BBC’s report

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