Raquel Hubbard-Hall lived in fear of her landlord, who stalked her inside her home.
Walter Ray Pelfrey would repeatedly show up to fix appliances that weren’t broken, and, once inside the Oklahoma City home Ms. Hubbard-Hall shared with three young children, he would make lewd remarks and sexual advances.
She says he showed up at her job asking her coworkers prying questions and would even enter her home when she wasn’t there, taunting her by leaving his business card on her counter.
Fed up, Ms. Hubbard-Hall sought a restraining order. But when the court date came around to finalize the order, she didn’t show.
“When they told me he would have to be there, I was in fear,” she said. “I have three kids, so I decided not to go for the best interests of me and my children. I couldn’t take the chance.”
Other tenants had similar complaints, and eventually it caught up with him. Pelfrey ended up settling a lawsuit brought by the nonprofit Metropolitan Fair Housing Council of Oklahoma, agreeing to pay $800,000 to seven women, including Ms. Hubbard-Hall. He died last year and two months after his death, the U.S. Justice Department filed a civil suit against his estate.
Authorities say that kind of harassment and even sexual assault — Pelfrey was also accused of entering tenants’ bedrooms at night while they were asleep and sticking his hand down tenants’ shirts — is all too common in housing situations.
Yet victims don’t know they have special rights under the Fair Housing Act, and the Justice Department figures only one in five victims actually reports the crime.
“It’s a little shocking to recognize this is going on everywhere,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said in an interview with The Washington Times. “We fully recognize that the numbers we have are the tip of the iceberg. People don’t trust the system, and they don’t feel they are going to be adequately protected, so they say, ‘I’ll take my chances.’ “
Reporting the crimes can also expose even more criminal behavior, too.
In the Pelfrey case, investigators said they uncovered evidence he helped a tenant illegally dump the body of her dead 13-year-old daughter and lied to police about it.
He denied all wrongdoing and died before the case went to trial.
There were no accusations that either Pelfrey or the girl’s mother, Reshawnda Laney Durham, were responsible for the girl’s death, though Durham pleaded guilty in 2017 to multiple offenses including failure to report discovered remains. She is serving a 25-year sentence.
Meanwhile, a Connecticut landlord who authorities say repeatedly groped female tenants and their underage children was also sentenced to 16 years in prison on child pornography charges.
Mr. Carson said he is not surprised by the link between sexual harassment and other criminal activity.
“There is no question that the people who perpetuate sexual harassment tend to be less savory characters. As a result of that, there is a nexus there in terms of them being involved in other unsavory activities,” he said.
Yet the hurdles to getting women to lodge reports remain.
Mary Daniels Dulan, executive director of Metropolitan Fair Housing, said since her organization filed the Pelfrey suit in 2015, it has received reports from 63 women, but only 12 advanced a complaint.
“The stigma is still there,” Ms. Dulan said. “They’re afraid. They’re ashamed they have to tell us what happened, and they are ashamed for waiting too long to come forward. It is a double-edged sword.”
Reporting numbers have ticked upwards since HUD and the Justice Department launched a pilot program in October 2017 to crack down on sexual harassment in housing. In April 2018 the agencies rolled out the initiative nationwide with a public awareness campaign.
In 2017, before the campaign’s start, HUD received 158 complaints. In 2018 that number inched up to 226. Through about the first half of fiscal 2019 HUD has logged 121 complaints.
The Justice Department opened 34 new investigations in 2018, five times more than it did the prior year. It also filed six lawsuits, more than any other year in the department’s history.
Mr. Carson said it’s not clear whether the increases are linked to the public awareness efforts or the cultural climate that sprung up around the global #MeToo movement.
“People seem to be more comfortable bringing forward cases now,” he said. “I don’t know if it is because of the #MeToo movement, but we have more people reporting it now. That’s why we along with the Justice Department decided we really better step this up because we don’t know for sure whether people were more willing to report it or it was occurring more often, but in either case, it needs to be dealt with more severely.”
Mr. Carson and Assistant HUD Secretary Anna Maria Farias both grew up in public housing and witnessed their mothers being harassed by their landlords.
Their department is using April, designated as Fair Housing Month, to educate renters on what constitutes sexual harassment and letting victims know they can report it
Mr. Carson said it’s also about letting those doing the harassing or assaults know there are consequences.
It goes beyond landlords and beyond physical advances, experts say. Property managers and maintenance workers can also harass women through a range of attacks, including withholding services or eviction in exchange for sex.
“These types of people use fear and intimidation as a tactic and in the relationship between the landlord and tenant, there is a huge power differential because you are talking about providing a home for your children, keeping a roof over your head,” said Ge’Andra Johnson, an attorney with Metro Fair Housing.