Economy

Women In Baltimore Public Housing Were Forced To Trade Sex For Basic Repairs

CREDIT: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

A public housing complex in Baltimore

M.G.’s refrigerator in her apartment in Gilmor Homes, a public housing complex in Baltimore, had been broken for years. She filed numerous work orders seeking to get it fixed or replaced, but nothing ever happened.

Until 2008, when an employee of the housing authority by the name of Michael Robertson told her that she had to have sex with him in order to get a new refrigerator.

“I was desperate,” she said in a sworn affidavit. “I am on disability and have limited means. I was consistently losing food and I was not able to afford new food. I felt that I had no choice.” She gave in and had sex with him twice. Afterward, she got two refurbished refrigerators over the course of two years.

On Friday, lawyers for M.G. and 18 other women who alleged that employees of Baltimore’s public housing agency demanded sex in return for critical housing repairs announced a settlement for all victims of sexual harassment in public housing.

Besides a financial award between $6 million and $7.5 million, the settlement required Baltimore to fire and ban all the abusers from Housing Authority property, move the plaintiffs into livable homes. The Housing Authority also created 50 new maintenance positions with new policies and procedures, and cut down their backlog of repairs from over 4,000 to 1,500.

The lawsuit, filed in September, alleged that maintenance men demanded sex from women living in public housing before they would make repairs to their “deplorable conditions,” which included rodent and insect infestations, lack of heat, mold, and electrocution risks. It also claims that at least one employee threatened a woman with violence if she didn’t give into his demands for sex, while another offered a woman cash for sex. The men also allegedly tried to intimidate women out of requesting repairs by sexually harassing them.

“These victims are too poor to move out and relocate their families,” the complaint says. “Consequently, they are left with the impossible choice of either succumbing to unwanted sexual demands in order to save themselves and their children from life-threatening conditions in their homes, or, living in squalor.”

The complaint claims women of nearly all ages — under-aged to in their 50s — and both the disabled and able-bodied were targeted by the harassment and abuse. “These affronts are about power and control over the most vulnerable members of society, including the poor, the young, and the disabled,” the complaint states.

The stories are harrowing. In a sworn statement, a single mother who moved into public housing to flee an abusive relationship described a housing employee she called Mr. Coleman exposing himself to her in his office and telling her she could get extra repairs on her house if she figured out “what can you do with this?”

When there was a gas leak in her house, she said she feared for her life and finally gave in, having sex with Coleman in order to get him to fix the leak. “I thought about my safety and the safety of my daughter to get through it,” she states. She kept needing repairs — such as a fix to a door that wouldn’t latch, leaving her and her daughter exposed to break-ins, and heat that didn’t work — and had intercourse with him four times and oral sex once. “After each time I gave in, Mr. Coleman had long-overdue work done to my unit,” she says.

The mother of a four-year-old says her daughter developed health problems related to peeling paint. Coleman sent her a video of himself in the shower naked and then demanded she send him pictures of her in her underwear. Worried for her daughter’s health, she sent him the pictures, after which he did some repairs.

Another mother of two said a different worker named Mike told her he would pay her for a date and that he “pays the girls in Gilmor [housing] well,” grabbing her breast. After she complained to his boss, the entire crew refused to repair her home. Now, a leaking pipe has caused such a bad mold outbreak that she sometimes coughs up blood.

Plenty of the other statements describe sexually explicit and physical harassment that women endured when they were simply trying to get repairs done on their homes. When they ignored the advances, they were left without heat, in the midst of mold outbreaks, or infested by rodents. One woman who suffered through this harassment says she was molested as a child by her mother’s boyfriend and that the “repeated and unwanted advances made me feel like I was being re-victimized.” Another said of the harassment she experienced, “I went into therapy while living there because of what they put me through,” adding, “Their comments made me feel broken.”

“The practice of demanding sex for repairs is so widespread that it is a pattern of practice by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City,” the complaint says, “whose housing officials have repeatedly turned their backs on the most vulnerable city residents.” It claims that officials ignored “numerous” complaints and let the men keep their jobs for years: an email with a complaint from one of the plaintiffs reached the housing authority’s inspector general as early as December 31, 2013. More than 10 complaints were filed.

Since the lawsuit was filed, two maintenance employees, Clinton Coleman and Michael Robertson, have been fired. The head of the city’s public housing authority, Paul Graziano, has also set up a hotline for victims to call and anonymously report future abuse. Even so, residents have called for Graziano’s resignation.

This is just the latest abuse to be uncovered in a series of revelations about the squalor those living in Baltimore’s public housing have been subjected to, from lead poisoning to a plague of vacant homes to entrenched racial segregation to widespread foreclosure and eviction.