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.
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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.
Nationally, hundreds of sexual harassment complaints are filed each year against public housing providers. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees government-subsidized housing nationwide, has proposed new rules to combat sexual harassment.
“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.
Louise Fitzgerald, a professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Illinois, said the case is remarkably similar to other examples of sexual harassment in housing.
“It is one of the last great open secrets,” Fitzgerald said. “The victims are universally poor. Nobody wants to believe them. It is an enormous problem.”
Legal experts say sexual harassment in housing is widespread, particularly in public housing and other government-subsidized programs.
HUD receives roughly 1,600 to 1,900 harassment complaints each year and the vast majority involve sexual harassment, a violation of federal law.
But no one knows exactly the depth of the problem. Many cases go unreported, experts say, and scant research exists on the issue.
Rigel Oliveri, a law professor at the University of Missouri, said she has interviewed 100 low-income, female tenants in Columbia, Mo., and 10 said they had experienced sexual harassment. She said the problem is likely more common in large cities, where there is concentrated poverty and a lack of affordable housing.
Often, experts said, male public housing officials who have the power to evict tenants become emboldened to control the lives of female tenants. They can get keys to units, for example, and prevent them from having visitors.
Recent cases have drawn legal action, including in July when Southeastern Community and Family Services Inc. in Robeson County, N.C., agreed to pay $2.7 million in damages after two public housing administrators were accused of offering subsidized housing vouchers in exchange for sex acts.
In September, a group of public housing tenants sued the city of Baltimore housing authority alleging that maintenance men demanded sex in exchange for repairs. A judge has ordered the two sides into settlement talks.
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.
Dawn Hanzlik-Hexemer, an attorney representing the Hickory Public Housing Authority, said there were employees who disliked Richardson’s management style. And she said the agency had moved to more strictly enforce lease terms.
Richardson, who has led Hickory public housing for 17 years, said her agency handled the accusations against Burton appropriately.
Burton worked for the Housing Authority for about a year, and Richardson said he performed well in several different roles.
She said the agency suspended Burton on Feb. 6 after discovering an alleged inappropriate relationship with a tenant. Burton resigned effective Feb. 13.
Richardson said she did not hear about other accusations against Burton until this past summer. That’s when an attorney distributed 600 mailings to current and former tenants asking if they had been harassed, extorted for sex or threatened by Burton. The mailing said the Housing Authority may have known about the harassment but did not move quickly to stop it.
Following recent reports by the Observer about alleged misspending and ethical lapses at the Hickory Public Housing Authority, HUD launched a review of the agency’s operations. Federal officials have not divulged details about the review. Richardson has denied any wrongdoing.
‘Nowhere to turn’
Some former employees say Richardson turned her back on the alleged victims.
Glenn Pinckney, a former employee who signed the complaint letter sent to federal officials, said he and two other former employees decided to speak up after seeing how the agency was hurting the people it was supposed to help.
Female tenants began coming forward in late 2014 and told a manager that Burton sexually harassed them, said Pinckney, who assisted tenants with self-improvement for the Housing Authority.
The complaint letter says tenants kept quiet about the alleged harassment because Burton threatened to evict them from their homes.
When two agency administrators lobbied for Richardson to investigate the accusations, the letter says, Richardson questioned the tenants’ credibility and took no immediate action.
“(Richardson) also stated that ‘We have to be careful what we believe because tenants will lie,’” the document says. “(Richardson) made excuses for Mr. Burton.”
Pinckney said he prays recent public attention on the case will prompt changes in Hickory public housing.
“This was the ultimate victimization of women,” Pinckney said. “They have nowhere to turn (for housing). Where are you going to go with your kids? The only other place to go is the street.”
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development tracks harassment complaints involving race, sexual orientation, national origin and other categories involving government-subsidized housing and private landlords. Officials said sexual harassment is the most common grievance, but experts say many incidents go unreported. Here are the number of reported harassment complaints HUD has received in recent years:
Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development