By ADRIAN RODRIGUEZ | firstname.lastname@example.org | Marin Independent Journal
Novato landlords will soon be prohibited from turning away prospective tenants who use Section 8 housing vouchers when a new ordinance becomes law.
After making minor changes, the Novato City Council this week voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance on its first reading, following guidelines set by county officials. A second reading and final vote is scheduled for Sept. 11. If it passes then, the anti-bias housing rule becomes effective in 30 days.
Councilwoman Denise Athas thanked city staff and others who worked to bring the ordinance forward. “It’s such an important item and I think whatever we end up with, the fact that we get it passed is what’s really crucial,” Athas said.
Marin’s Board of Supervisors approved its fair housing ordinance — which forbids landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants with Section 8 or other rental assistance vouchers — in November 2016. Supervisors at the time said they hoped other local municipalities would follow suit adopting similar regulations, in part so that any confusion for renters or landlords could be avoided about where, exactly, the rules apply.
The Novato City Council considered a version of that ordinance in May, but ultimately held off on a decision, considering that there were concerns the regulations didn’t state clearly enough that they applied only to rental housing. At the May meeting, a representative of Nova-Ro, a nonprofit based out of Novato that provides housing to low-income seniors, told the council he was afraid the fair housing ordinance could get in the way of a requirement his organization places on its clients that ensures operations run smoothly. Prospective tenants who apply to live in Nova-Ro’s units have to prove family members or other caretakers live within reasonable distances to the organization’s housing complexes, and can be available to help out during personal emergencies.
In July, the city held a community workshop to discuss options. Bob Brown, Novato’s community development director, said staff reviewed the ordinance that the Fairfax Town Council greenlighted earlier this year. The version of the ordinance presented Tuesday attempted to address all council members’ and landlord concerns, he said. “So with that, I hope we’ve hit the mark this time around,” Brown said.
With regard to a section of the ordinance that deals with civil liability and what the courts can award to a person who is discriminated against, Councilwoman Pat Eklund asked if the Novato ordinance could match exactly the wording of the Fairfax ordinance. Assistant City Attorney Veronica Nebb and City Manager Regan Candelario confirmed that the edit would be acceptable. After Athas made a motion, Eklund added the amendment, and it passed 5-0.
While fair housing advocates applauded the city for taking on the issue, many voiced concerns that they would like to see more consistency in rules adopted by Marin jurisdictions.
David Levin, managing attorney at Legal Aid Marin, said that he serves a client who uses Section 8 housing vouchers, and she was denied housing by an apartment complex that was on the wrong side of the street, just outside the county’s jurisdiction. “The county’s ordinance applied on one side of the street,” he said. “So any opportunity to make the laws uniform across Marin really helps.” He added that after searching homes for rent in Novato, he found six listings that said no Section 8. “The discrimination issue here is very serious,” Levin said.
Caroline Peattie, executive director of Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California said another issue is that the ordinance allows landlords to require that a tenant has a cosigner or guarantor who is a blood relative and within a one-hour drive of the residence. “I think that creates barriers to housing opportunities for people of color and individuals with disabilities and people who don’t have local connections, even if they qualify by income or age,” which goes against the purpose of the ordinance, Peattie said. “So there is a little bit of contradictory language within the ordinance.”
Novato resident Peter Mendoza, who uses a wheelchair and once benefited from the Section 8 housing program, called it a wonderful program and said seniors and people with disabilities often struggle to find housing. Mendoza urged the council to remove language that would allow landlords to require a cosigner to rent. “I think it’s important to remember, many people with disabilities and seniors don’t have families that can cosign, or may not have families at all,” Mendoza said. “I really think that if that is kept in, you’re making it difficult for a lot of people who would otherwise benefit from the program in Novato with the ordinance.”
Officials in San Rafael said the City Council is poised to adopt its own fair housing rules at its Oct. 1 meeting.
BY EMILY NONKO | AUGUST 29, 2018
For Caroline Peattie to talk about the state of foreclosed homes in minority neighborhoods of Northern California, she has to get into the history of U.S. housing segregation.
Peattie, the executive director of Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, draws a line from early- to mid-twentieth century policies that enforced residential segregation by race and resulted in a persistent wealth divide, to the lead-up to the 2009 housing crash, in which minorities were targeted for subprime mortgages and then to the aftermath in which those minority neighborhoods were disproportionately affected by the foreclosure crisis.
In the decade since the crash, she’s seen housing inequality persist in a new way. Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California is one of 19 fair housing organizations, led by the Washington-based National Fair Housing Alliance, filing suit this summer against Bank of America alleging the bank intentionally failed to maintain foreclosed homes in minority neighborhoods, while it consistently maintained similar bank-owned homes in comparable white neighborhoods.
Fair housing organizations consider such disparate treatment of foreclosed homes to be reminiscent of redlining — the practice of denying bank loans and other forms of non-predatory lending to certain people or neighborhoods based on race. Both practices result in the gradual decay of housing stock in predominantly minority neighborhoods.
Peattie rattles off statistics for Vallejo, a city where the group studied 24 homes owned by Bank of America. Two were located in Latino neighborhoods, 16 in predominantly non-white neighborhoods, and six in predominantly white neighborhoods.
“When you look at the data,” Peattie says, “Two of these properties in neighborhoods of color had 10 or more marketing and maintenance deficiencies — one even had 15 — while none of the properties in the white neighborhoods had 10 or more of those deficiencies.” Issues like unsecured or boarded doors, damaged roofs, and peeling paint were documented in minority neighborhoods, she adds, but nearly non-existent in Vallejo’s predominantly white communities.
As a result, it’s not only property values and therefore wealth creation that suffer disproportionately in minority neighborhoods — physical and mental health suffer, too.
KEVIN FIXLERTHE PRESS DEMOCRAT | August 16, 2018, 4:35PM
The notice to vacate was taped to Rotha Rice’s Rohnert Park apartment door the first week of May. She was expecting it, given she’d heard from neighbors that Americana Apartments was terminating the leases of every tenant enrolled in a federal housing subsidy program.
Rice, 74, was given 90 days to leave the place she has called home since 2006, when she moved into the complex on the city’s northeastern edge with a single cup, a plate and a lamp. In the dozen years since, she accumulated a bed, furniture, a variety of books and other belongings. For the first time in a long time, she felt stable.
The location of the apartment was ideal, situated only a mile and a half from her job of 26 years working graveyard shifts at a Shell gas station. It’s also not far from the city’s senior center where she grabs lunch daily, as well as a longtime network of friends who help get her to and from doctors’ appointments to manage her delicate health. Now that’s all been thrown into disarray as Rice struggles to find another landlord willing to accept her housing voucher.
“On May 3, I called 27 places,” said Rice. “There’s nothing out there, because of the fires. “It’s plenty of time,” she added of the period to relocate, “but for me it’s no time if there’s nothing available.” Finding rental housing in many parts of Sonoma County is increasingly difficult for people like Rice, who rely on the Section 8 program to afford rents in Sonoma County. The waitlist just to get into the program for low-income renters can take up to six years, and those who have finally made it in are seeing the number of landlords who accept the housing vouchers shrink by the month.
More than 4,700 people throughout Sonoma County are enrolled in the federal Section 8 program, which provides vouchers up to $1,633 per month for single-bedroom housing. The money available increases with the size of the rental.
Admission is based on income. A single person who makes up to $34,400 annually is eligible to apply, while a family of four can make as much as $49,100. Once accepted, people in the program are required to spend 30 to 40 percent of their own income on housing, excluding the value of the voucher.
By Tom Gogola, Pacific Sun - August 9, 2018
Federal Reserve study offers stark counterpoint to accepted wisdom that more development = cheaper rent.
An eye-opening report on Forbes.com over the weekend was making the social-media rounds among regional politicos and housing advocates as it offered a sobering reality when it comes to housing: just because you build a lot of it, doesn’t mean the housing situation overall becomes more affordable to those of lesser means.
The financial fanzine popular among the 1 percent crowd based its story on an April report from the Federal Reserve that dove into various housing statistics in a few big metro areas around the country—San Francisco included—and concluded that variations in rent in a given area are driven more by the availability of local amenities than they are by the numbers of housing units built.
Bottom line, write co-authors Elliot Anenberg and Edward Kung, is that even as affordable-housing advocates push for mixed-income developments amidst a backdrop of environmental red-tape and local NIMBYism, there might be a better way: “Even if a city were able to ease some supply constraints to achieve a marginal increase in housing stock, the city will not experience a meaningful lessening in rental burdens.”
The study’s authors instead suggest that policymakers considering deploying resources to improve amenities in lower-priced areas instead of pushing to build-out affordable housing in wealthy neighborhoods. If true, the implications of the Federal Reserve report are stark for regions such as the North Bay that have put their stock into a state-mandated “housing element” that’s heavy on the idea of mixed-income developments—to keep the local workforce local, the carbon-spewing cars off the road and the housing fair and just for all. The picture is complicated, mightily, by an expanding short-term vacation-rental market now afoot in a region that’s watched, for example, an entire middle-class neighborhood (Coffey Park) go up in flames in the past year.
I sent the Forbes report to Caroline Peattie, executive director of Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, to gauge her response. Peattie couldn’t offer a view on whether she thought the Fed findings were true or not, but “on the other hand, in some ways the conclusion seems to validate the concept behind why it’s important to affirmatively further fair housing — and all the things that go into achieving greater equity to all the opportunities related to where one lives. Something that the study labels ‘amenities’ may be more indicative of access to opportunity than the term would indicate. I’m most interested in looking at these issues through a fair housing lens, and since one’s zip code determines one’s access to transportation, jobs, education, health, environment, good food options—of course, the ‘high opportunity areas’ have these ‘amenities.’” Bottom line for Peattie is that whatever the approach to building affordable housing—it needs to be “seen through the lens of equity.”
June 27, 2018, Housingwire by Kelsey Ramírez
Claim violations under federal Fair Housing Act
Civil rights groups are coming together to bring a lawsuit against Bank of America and Safeguard Properties Management for alleged fair housing violations.
The National Fair Housing Alliance, a group of 19 fair housing organizations and two homeowners from Maryland filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the two companies. According to the lawsuit, the defendants intentionally failed to provide routine exterior maintenance and marketing for Bank of America-owned homes in African American and Latino neighborhoods across 37 metro areas. This was then compared with mostly white neighborhoods, where the bank allegedly consistently maintained its homes.
The claims the civil rights groups make about some of these homes is nothing short of shocking. The groups say they found evidence of wildly overgrown grass and weeds, unsecured doors and windows, damaged steps and handrails, accumulated trash and debris, unsecured pools, graffiti and even dead animals decaying in the yards.
By contrast, the lawsuit alleges that in predominantly white working- and middle-class neighborhoods, homes are far more likely to have the lawns mowed and edged regularly, invasive weeds and vines removed, windows and doors secured or repaired, debris and trash removed, leaves raked and graffiti erased from the property.
Bank of America took possession of these homes after it foreclosed on the properties and became the owner of record. As owner of these homes, the bank is responsible for routine exterior maintenance on all of its properties. NFHA claims it first made Bank of America aware of these problems back in 2009, and even offered recommendations for improvement. However, no such improvements were made, according to the alliance.
“Bank of America should have taken meaningful steps toward fixing these problems after being put on notice, but failed to do so,” said Caroline Peattie, executive director of Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, one of the fair housing groups filing the lawsuit. “For example, Bank of America boarded windows in communities of color rather than installing clear boarding or fixing the windows."
“Boarded windows carry a stigma and imply the neighborhood is not safe or desirable,” Peattie said. “Bank of America must be held accountable for failing to maintain its foreclosure inventory. In California, Bank of America has played a major part in changing single-family, owner-occupied neighborhoods into rental communities, as large investors buy bank-owned homes in quantity and drag property values down in the process.”
By Richard Halstead, Marin Independent Journal
The owner of a six-unit San Rafael apartment complex has agreed to pay $27,200 as part of a settlement following allegations that she and her property manager discriminated against an Hispanic family that was forced to leave the complex.
The mediated settlement resulted after Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, formerly known as Fair Housing of Marin, filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and state Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The complaint was filed against Rosa Nguyen, the owner, and Bob Torreso, the property manager of the complex at 150 Clark St. The plaintiffs have requested anonymity.
“I’m happy that our clients were at least partially compensated for the considerable damages they experienced,” Caroline Peattie, Fair Housing’s executive director, said in a statement.
The settlement also requires Nguyen to undergo fair housing training for three years.
Stephen Lightfoot of Corte Madera, the attorney representing Nguyen and Torreso, said, “My clients denied all of the allegations, and we reached a settlement which has a finding of no liability and no admission of liability.”
According to Fair Housing, the family moved into the second story of the complex in February 2011. At that time, four of the units were occupied by non-Hispanic, Caucasian individuals and one was occupied by another Hispanic couple with two children.
Fair Housing said that since the winter of 2011, the plaintiff family had been experiencing issues with mold and moisture in their apartment. As a result, the family’s mother and young son experienced significant allergies and a worsening of respiratory disabilities.
Fair Housing said despite numerous requests that the moisture problems be addressed, nothing was done until the latter half of 2015, when the family’s father was granted permission to replace the moldy carpet with laminate flooring on his own with only partial reimbursement for materials. Soon afterward, according to Fair Housing, property manager Torreso began cautioning the family about noise-related concerns. Torreso told the family that a new tenant had moved in below them and had complained that their son was making too much noise, running around the apartment as late as midnight. The family disputed this, responding that the boy’s bedtime was 9 p.m.
Fair Housing said Torreso also began complaining to the family about the accumulation of garbage at the complex. Since the trash did not belong to the family and the manager provided no indication why he believed it did, the family interpreted these allegations as discriminatory statements based on their national origin.
By early 2016, the tenancies for both the plaintiff family and the other Hispanic family at the complex had been terminated. Torreso told the plaintiff family that the termination of their tenancy was due to the noise caused by their son; he reportedly told them he couldn’t rent the apartment below them because of their child.
Desperate to hold onto their apartment, the plaintiff family offered to relocate to the ground-floor apartment. Fair Housing said that owner Nguyen denied the request, however, stating that she had “had it” with the family.
The plaintiff family’s father alleges that in mid-February 2016, Nguyen told him that she no longer wanted to rent any apartments to families with children. At this point, the family sought help from Fair Housing, which sent a letter requesting rescission of the notice of termination and outlining the family’s concerns. Nevertheless, Nguyen filed an unlawful detainer to evict the plaintiff family and the other Hispanic family.
Fair Housing said a copy of the complex’s House Rules and Regulations, included as an exhibit in the detainer, contained discriminatory statements, because they placed limits on where children could play in the complex. The plaintiff family ultimately relocated to a smaller, more expensive apartment in a neighborhood with much more traffic, noise and crime. Fair Housing said subsequently, in the summer of 2016, it conducted an investigation that showed Torreso was discriminating on the basis of national origin by showing preference to non-Hispanic, Caucasian housing applicants.
Fair Housing said Torreso told its Hispanic investigator who inquired about availabilities that a tenant might be moving out in the next month and advised him to call back in three weeks. Fair Housing said one day later Torreso told its non-Hispanic Caucasian investigator that there might be an opening in two weeks, and also provided more detailed information regarding rental terms, including rent and security deposit amounts.
“Our Latino investigator had a clearly identifiable accent and name,” Peattie said in a release. “He was never given a chance to talk about his qualifications or put in an application.”
Fair Housing said two weeks later, its Latino investigator contacted Torreso again and was told there were no vacancies. Fair Housing said less than 24 hours later, Torreso told its non-Hispanic Caucasian investigator that there were two units opening soon, and agreed to provide him with a tour of the premises.
Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California
BY NICOLE ÇABALETTE
An African-American renter found a new home in Marin and moved in. Her landlord told her that her neighbors would be upset that she had rented to an African-American. The landlord began harassing the tenant, and following a dispute about rent, placed a sign in her window: “Black Section 8 Tenant – Shameless [tenant’s name].” This tenant’s story of racial discrimination is devastating and is even more disturbing because it happened within the last year.
This year marks fifty years since the federal Fair Housing Act was enacted. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., 125 cities erupted in riots. Seventy thousand military troops and National Guardsmen were deployed in twenty-nine states. One week later, in an attempt to address racial segregation and discrimination, Lyndon Johnson signed the Act into law.
The Fair Housing Act protects individuals from discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, gender, disability and familial status. In California, there are additional protections for marital status, sexual orientation, immigration status, citizenship, primary language, ancestry, source of income and arbitrary characteristics such as age or physical appearance through the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.
Fast forward to 2018. Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California (“FHANC”), formerly known as Fair Housing of Marin, a nonprofit organization serving Marin, Solano, Sonoma and other Bay Area counties, works to ensure equal housing opportunity and to educate the community on the value of diversity in our neighborhoods.
Based in San Rafael, and celebrating its 32nd year serving our community, FHANC is a HUD-Certified Housing Counseling Agency which provides free fair housing counseling, investigation, enforcement, mediation, and legal or administrative referrals to those who have experienced housing discrimination. FHANC also provides foreclosure prevention counseling for distressed homeowners. FHANC staff may represent tenants in the administrative complaint process, and as an agency with standing, sometimes brings administrative complaints and lawsuits in order to change discriminatory housing policies.
For property owners and managers, and other real estate professionals in both the private and public sectors, FHANC provides fair housing law training programs and seminars. Community and tenant groups can also schedule fair housing presentations.
For homeowners suffering a financial hardship, FHANC provides guidance on eligibility and qualifications for participation in federal and state programs to help them stay in their homes, maintain an affordable mortgage payment, and avoid foreclosure.
For homebuyers, FHANC offers pre-purchase education workshops in English and Spanish in the fall and spring, with the next English workshop scheduled for March 1. FHANC’s website is also a fantastic resource for best practices and legal information for tenants, landlords, homeowners and other industry professionals.
FHANC conducts on-call housing discrimination investigations, wherein trained testers take on the role of someone inquiring about housing and report on their experience. Testing is critical to the enforcement of fair housing laws and serves to expose discriminatory practices and patterns that might otherwise go undetected. The reports can be used as evidence in support of a housing discrimination complaint.
For example, FHANC recently conducted a two-part investigation at a property in Marin, using callers with racially-identifiable voices. In both instances, the housing provider refused to schedule a private appointment with the African-American callers; however, when speaking with Caucasian callers just hours later, he agreed to meet without question and offered a lower security deposit.
Another, lesser known piece of FHANC’s advocacy work is its investigations of bank-owned (REO) properties, which commenced in 2013. On February 1, 2018, FHANC, together with the National Fair Housing Alliance and eighteen other fair housing organizations around the country, filed a lawsuit against a Deuschte Bank, its loan servicer, Ocwen Financial, and its property manager, Altisource Portfolian Solutions, related to their failure to maintain and market Deuschte Bank’s REO properties in neighborhoods of color compared to white neighborhoods. FHANC and its partners filed a similar lawsuit last year against Fannie Mae.
Learn More and Get Involved
On April 25, to celebrate Fair Housing Month and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act’s passage, FHANC will present the 2018 Fair Housing Conference at the Embassy Suites Hotel in San Rafael, which will feature experts in the fair housing field who will address pressing fair housing concerns affecting Marin County and the Bay Area, and offer strategies to promote equal housing opportunity.
The examples of blatant discrimination cited above provide a glimpse into the kind of work still required, fifty years later, to continue the fight for equal housing opportunity. If you are looking for ways to get involved, FHANC is always looking for volunteers interested in becoming testers. If you are interested in helping to uncover illegal housing discrimination, please emailor call Katherine Collado at 415.483.7516. FHANC is also seeking committed board members and donations are always welcome. If you are interested in learning more, please email or call FHANC’s Executive Director, Caroline Peattie at 415.457.5025.
Nicole Çabalette is a member of MCBA's Board of Directors and a partner at Keegin Harrison LLP, with a transactional practice emphasizing business, real estate law and estate planning.
View the article online here.
Lawsuit: Deutsche Bank lets foreclosures in minority areas fall to disrepair, suppressing home values
by Scott Holland
Nearly 20 fair housing activist organizations are suing Deutsche Bank, alleging it worked to suppress property values in minority neighborhoods across the country by allowing foreclosed homes to fall into disrepair, while maintaining its holdings much better in predominantely white neighborhoods.
In a complaint filed Feb. 1 in federal court in Chicago, the private organizations said Deutsche Bank did less exterior maintenance and marketing of properties it acquired through foreclosure in predominantly minority neighborhoods in 30 metropolitan areas. In addition to Deutsche Bank, named defendants include Ocwen Financial Corp. and Altisource Portfolio Solutions, Inc., which do home preservation and maintenance work for bank-owned properties.
The housing groups say they investigated more than 1,100 foreclosed properties going back to 2011, collecting “evidence on 39 objective aspects of the routine exterior maintenance of each property investigated, and accumulated over 29,000 photographs of the pertinent conditions, such as unsecured doors, damage to steps, handrails, windows and fences, graffiti, the accumulation of trash and mail and overgrown grass and shrubbery.”
They also said they identified marketing deficiencies like an absence of “for sale” signs or current online listings while allowing “negative signage and warnings to deter prospective buyers” such as “bank-owned,” “auction” or “foreclosed.”
According to the complaint, there were “highly significant disparities in the routine exterior maintenance and marketing of the Deutsche Bank-owned homes in communities of color as compared to white communities.” The plaintiffs said it found in each of the 30 cities examples of bank-owned properties in markedly worse conditions in neighborhoods primarily occupied by African-American and Latino residents.
This approach perpetuated racial segregation, the complaint alleged, by denying housing opportunities, impeding neighborhood stabilization and economic recovery and lowering the value of other homes. They say taking care of properties differently based on the racial makeup of their neighborhood violates the Fair Housing Act, and further that it affects the organizations’ “missions by perpetuating the unlawful discrimination and segregation they use their limited resources to dismantle.”
Plaintiff organizations include the National Fair Housing Alliance, Hope Fair Housing Center, South Suburban Hosing Center, Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Fair Housing Opportunities of Northwest Ohio, Fair Housing Continuum, Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, Denver Metro Fair Housing Center, Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, Fair Housing Center of West Michigan, Miami Valley Fair Housing Center, Housing Research and Advocacy Center, Fair Housing Center of the Greater Palm Beaches, Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana, Central Ohio Fair Housing Association, Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence, Connecticut Fair Housing Center, North Texas Fair Housing Center and Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California.
According to the complaint, the organizations filed an administrative housing discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair House and Equal Opportunity Office on Feb. 26, 2014, and amended it six times through July 26, 2017, as its investigation continued. That complaint is pending.
They also said Ocwen and Altisource have “histories of regulatory violations, allegations of unlawful corporate conduct and intentional bad acts, requiring the payment of millions of dollars to resolve claims that they have intentionally violated consumer finance, civil rights and securities laws, and defrauded borrowers with respect to their mortgage loans.”
In addition to a jury trial, the organizations want a court to declare Deutsche Bank’s conduct in violation of FHA regulations and to force it to stop treating properties differently based on neighborhood demographics. They seek unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
The housing organizations are represented by Soule, Bradtke & Lambert, of Elmhurst; Relman, Dane & Colfax PLLC, of Washington, D.C.; and the National Fair Housing Alliance, also of Washington, D.C.
By Jessica Lussenhop BBC News, North Carolina
Across the US, sexual harassment at the hands of landlords, property managers and others in the housing industry can drive poor women and their children into homelessness. It is a problem badly understood and virtually unstudied.
Khristen Sellers needed a home. The previous few years had been a struggle. She'd left an abusive relationship, been arrested, wandered out and then back into her children's lives. Just as she seemed to be getting back on track, a probation violation sent Sellers to prison for the first time.
After five months, she returned to her hometown of Laurinburg, North Carolina. She was broke and homeless, starting over at the age of 29. She slept on couches. She got a job at a supermarket, then another at a fast-food restaurant."I'm walking to these jobs trying to, you know, stay afloat," she recalls.
So when Four-County Community Services - a local housing agency - offered her an opportunity to move into a white panelled, three-bedroom trailer home on the outskirts of town, she readily accepted. That's when the trouble started."I was trying to fix my life," she says, "and this put a halt on it."
She had applied for the federally subsidised Housing Choice Voucher Program, better known by its former title, Section 8. In the US, 2.1 million low-income households rent from private landlords using the vouchers, and their rent is partially or fully covered by funds from the federal government.
Laurinburg is located in one of the most economically depressed counties in North Carolina. Vouchers are coveted, and some people languished on the waiting list for as long as 10 years. Four-County was the local agency entrusted with disbursing them.
Based on need, Sellers qualified relatively quickly. Another Section 8 tenant had abandoned the double-wide trailer on Dorset Drive, and Sellers was told that if she cleaned it, she could move right in. Every morning, Sellers' mother dropped her off alone at the property. For a week, she hauled out broken furniture, pulled rotten food from the refrigerator, scrubbed dog excrement off the carpets and poisoned the cockroaches. There was extensive damage to the property that Sellers couldn't fix herself, but before the landlord would make the repairs, an inspector from Four-County had to take a look.
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 was horrified. And she says it was the first in a string of incidents."It was continuous," she says. "He would never sign. Each time he came, it was like, 'You owe me before I sign this paper. And you gotta make a decision.'" She worried she would lose her voucher if she complained to the housing agency. She tried to hire a lawyer who told her to come back when she had witnesses. A private investigator told her she couldn't afford him. A colleague she confided in thought she was doing Sellers a favour by going to Pender's boss.