Every day since October, the news cycle has been flooded with stories of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. But a new report from 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 as 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 cases.
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 here.