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?”