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 dispersing 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.
The house where Khristen Sellers alleges she was subjected to repeated sexual advances by a housing inspector