Uncovering rampant sexual harassment in housing systems: 'That's where you're supposed to be safest... your home'

Khristen Sellers took her case to court -- and dozens of women came forward.

February 25, 2019, 9:16 PM

For Autumn Weaver, having a home meant everything.

"It was my independence," Weaver, 33, said. "It was me finally being able to do it on my own without any help."

That sense of autonomy was critical for her, a woman whose life had been marred by her dependence on drugs.

"When I was 12, I was like smoking weed and doing cigarettes. As I got to be 18 I got into weed, cigarettes, crystal meth and cocaine," she said. "Like whatever I could get."

Her habits followed her into adulthood. She married young, giving birth to three sons in between getting high with her husband. She said abuse was a constant in their relationship.

"It got even more toxic and I just couldn't take it anymore. And so when I wanted - when I hit rock bottom was when they took my kids away."

After being reported by family members, her children went into state custody. It was a clarion call that Weaver says changed the course of her life.

"I just dropped everything like I had the urge to want to stop," she said. "That mindset was I have to get them back. Like I don't know life without them. "

She went through a treatment program and got completely clean, eventually separating from her husband, who got clean later on. In 2012, she was eligible to get her children back provided she had a job (she had two) and had housing. She filed for public housing was granted entry into federally subsidized Housing Choice Voucher Program, most commonly known as Section 8.

Weaver eventually got a two bedroom apartment which meant that, at long last, she could be reunited with her sons.

"When I walked in ... I was like this is mine," Weaver said, a large smile spreading on her face. "It's a shock to be able to do something on your own ... I was excited."

But that joy wouldn't last for long.

Weaver, who has an auto-immune disease, would be in the hospital for long periods of time. When she returned, she found eviction letters saying that she had accrued maintenance charges during the time she was not in the house. Believing it to be a mistake, she was referred to Victor Hernandez, the hearing officer for the Kansas City Kansas Housing Authority, the division that disbursed her federal aid.

Weaver went down to his office. She was on the phone with her then-boyfriend when Hernandez walked in.

"He sat down because he heard the conversation between me and my [then-boyfriend] husband and he was like, 'I just want to know have you ever had sex with a married man?' I was like 'What?'"

"When you hear that you don't- you think you're hearing things," Weaver said.

She says it escalated.

"He was like, 'So can I ask you a question?' I'm thinking, 'OK, we're going to get these charges figured out,'" she said. "And he was like, 'So how big is your husband's thing?' and 'I was like excuse me?'"

Aghast, Weaver tried to change the topic. She says he told her that he couldn't remove all the charges but could knock them down to a reasonable rate, which she agreed to. He asked her to come around to his side of the desk to sign some paperwork.

"I was like 'Yes sir.' And by the time I knew it, he had done pulled down his pants and exposed himself to me in the office," she said, adding, "So I signed the paperwork and I walked out."

Hernandez, in his position for the federal KCKHA, had what felt like the ultimate power; he could have left the charges on her file and evicted Weaver and her three children, leaving them homeless.

"You feel worthless, you feel uncomfortable and a lot that was going through my head was 'Why me?'" Weaver said. "Having that type of situation come at you when you're an adult and you're a recovering addict, it sets you back it sets you back a lot mentally. And so I just felt like it was worthless. I deserved it. And that's how my life was going to be."

From that day on, Weaver says she never talked to Hernandez again, paying her rent in bulk so she didn't have to face him. And she even reported him to a man she thought could do something, her property manager, Derrick Estelle. When she told him, she says he laughed in her face and she never mentioned it again.

She says it would soon become clear that Estelle was not the person in whom to place her trust. Weaver says that he, too, harassed her "from the time we moved in."

She says it began with small advances; offering to pay her bills or get her a new car. Then she says he'd ask her to sit on his lap.

"I tried to brush off as much as possible when I tried to shut down mentally when he would talk like that," Weaver said. "I would leave his office but it would it would continue for months and months. And months until the big situation happened."

The big situation came on a Friday. Her children were at school when she received a letter informing her that she owed $500 in rent and that, if she didn't pay by Monday, she would be evicted. She didn't have that kind of money on hand so she scrambled, calling Catholic charities, knowing that her family members also wouldn't be able to come up with the money.

In desperation, she went to see Estelle.

"He was like because if you don't have it I'm going to basically put you out on the streets come Monday. He was like 'the sheriff will be in there to put your stuff on the street. And that's it.' And all I could think of at that point was my kids going back to state's custody," Weaver said.

But she says he offered a solution.

"He was like 'give me what I want.' And so I was like, 'OK what do you want?' And he was like 'I want you.' And I just sat there for a minute ... if I don't do this I lose my kids. If I don't do this, I lose my housing, I lose everything that I have fought so hard for. So I basically had to have sex with him in his office before I lost my housing."

"It's Not a Hollywood Problem"

In this era of #MeToo, there has been a renewed discussion on sexual abuse in the entertainment industry. Media titans like Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves have fallen in the wake of a slew of allegations, actresses draped in black protested on red carpets, and survivors and supporters marched on the nation's capital, demanding their voices be heard.

But out of view of the bright lights of Hollywood, millions of women who knew the realities of the movement long before any hashtag was born.

"Sexual violence is not a Hollywood problem," said Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement.

Burke, a survivor of sexual abuse herself, has long been an advocate for survivors, previously serving as a fair housing enforcer in Alabama. She now is the senior director at Girls for Gender Equity.

"The reason why it's spilled over in Hollywood is because it's a pervasive problem and there's no part of the world there's no demographic that you can name," she said. "There's no group that it doesn't touch; no race, no religion, nobody. It just it doesn't discriminate."

When it comes to harassment in the housing industry, there are still relatively few statistics. There has never been a comprehensive national survey of tenants.

"The number of complaints that HUD and our fair housing partners receive from across the country would indicate that the problem is pervasive," said Amy Thompson, assistant secretary for public Affairs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Over the past two years alone, we've received more than 6,500 complaints alleging discrimination based on sex and almost 400 of those cases involve sex discrimination."

Most experts agree that women of color, single women and women of color are the most vulnerable.

"History has shown us that women with that many layers of vulnerability are usually not believed," Burke said. "Every checkmark that you can check, every box you can check off is another reason. Oh you're black. Oh you're poor. Oh you're an ex con."

Khristen Seller's story inspires dozens to speak out

It's a reality Khristen Sellers knows too well. After having spent time in jail on drug-related charges, in 2011, she was looking to turn her life around. In her hometown of Laurinburg, North Carolina, she worked two jobs and was looking for a home for herself and her three children.

"I had lost everything," Sellers told Nightline co-anchor, JuJu Chang.

Working two jobs at a Hardee's restaurant and a Food Lion store, she, like Weaver, applied for a housing voucher that would allow her to use federal money to rent a home.

Kelly Clarke, a lawyer for Legal Aid in North Carolina, says those vouchers are crucial. "The waiting list for years ... they are almost like gold," she said.

Sellers was approved and rented a small trailer that had been abandoned for a year. She was tasked with making the home, which she says was infested with feces and trash, liveable. To continue receiving federal money, an agency inspector would check in on Sellers periodically. Sellers' inspector was a man named Eric Pender.

Khristen Sellers spoke with "Nightline" about the sexual harassment she faced by a man who had the power to evict her and her children from their home.

But Sellers says, on his very first inspection, it was clear that something wasn't right. She said he asked why she didn't have a boyfriend to help her clean, a quip she says she laughed off. But she soon felt that their rapport was shifting into dangerous territory.

"I'm feeling like he was just trying to ... manipulate," Sellers said. "I could tell that he felt like I was like weak to a point where he could just say anything."

As they walked through the house, Sellers says things then became aggressive. When they arrived at the bathroom, he turned and blocked the door. Before she knew it, this man that she had just met was exposing himself to her, she said.

"I just couldn't believe he had that audacity, the bravery," Sellers said.

She managed to brush past him but now, she felt, everything had changed. In his role, Pender had the ability to evict her, taking away the chance of a home for her and her children.

"It's different because this is that's your sanctuary, that's your place of peace, your place of happiness. That's where you're supposed to be safest," she said. "You know it's your home."

Nervous and afraid, Sellers vented to a friend. She also called a private investigator to scope out her options. He told her there's not much he can help with but advises her to take action and record the conversation the next time she sees him.

She does. For her third inspection, she hid her phone under her shirt. Shaking but determined, she hit record.

"You know Ms. Sellers, you need to be careful of who you're talking to," Pender can be heard saying on the recording. Unbeknownst to Sellers, word of her complaint had gotten back to Pender through his boss.

"I said all I done was try to help her, said that you know, you getting tired of me asking you for p---- and everything," Pender said.

"Seeing how I came by and asked you for some anyway and I said well damn, maybe, you know ... maybe because you like women, maybe I shouldn’t have never even approached you," Pender then said.

In the end, Sellers felt the conversation ended with a threat. "You'll take care of me later on," he said. With this proof in hand, Sellers thought it was time to get a lawyer. After searching and being rejected, an attorney named Craig Hensel finally heard her out.

"It was my first year of practice and she called me with a case," Hensel said. "But it struck me as something that was probably actionable and that was definitely wrong and something needed to be done about it."

For Sellers, his trust in her story made all the difference. "Craig was just like, 'I believe you.' Like he was the first person to kind of like say 'I believe you, I believe in you.'"

Clarke and Legal Aid joined forces with Hensel Land were later joined by a California-based firm, Brancart and Brancart. As part of the investigation, they sent out mailers to people that lived in the area. They also reached out to the United States Department of Justice and it opened an investigation into the allegations against Pender, and Four County Community Services (later known as Southeastern Community & Family Services).

And then the floodgates opened.

Eight additional women came forward. In the meantime, the United States Department of Justice had filed a separate lawsuit against Pender, Wesley, and Four County and the two cases were then consolidated. Clarke says the DOJ's participation was crucial; by law, their case was able to span a larger time period than the case Hensel, Brancart, and Legal Aid were able to pursue. This meant more survivors could be helped.

"For the DOJ’s case, they could assist people going farther back in time than we could. The time period when the DOJ could file a case in court started when they learned of the case, not from the time when the last act of discrimination occurred. For the DOJ’s case, as we understood, their investigation revealed allegations going back to 1989," Clarke said.

The cases were ultimately pursued in federal court and settled for $2.7 million dollars, the largest settlement of its kind at the time. Pender denied the allegations but, along with Southeastern Community and Family Services, the company that employed him, entered into a consent decree. In a statement, the company told ABC News that they take "very seriously" all individuals' right to dignity, adding that it has changed its leadership and are committed to "taking responsibility...anytime we fall short".

The DOJ set up a million dollar fund for other women to come forward; in the end, 71 were approved by the court to receive distributions from this fund upon recommendation and further investigation by the DOJ.

"We give them power when we be quiet," Sellers said. "That's what I've learned through this whole ordeal."

She now has moved out of public housing. She lives in a quaint split-level in Greensboro. Sprawled across the walls are her daily meditations, uplifting quotes that she now lives by. The chirps of her parakeets waft through the halls. It's an apt metaphor for a book she loves, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Maya Angelou's coming of age novel that describes overcoming personal trauma.

Autumn Weaver, too, has moved into her own home. She was part of a DOJ/HUD settlement against Victor Hernandez and Derrick Estelle. While Hernandez admitted to exposing himself, Estelle has denied all claims.

In a statement to ABC News, the Kansas City Housing Authority said “[It] was not aware of any allegations of improper conduct by either Mr. Hernandez or Mr. Estelle until it received Ms. Weaver’s Charge of Discrimination in late 2013,” and that “[It] did not become aware of the allegations related to Mr. Estelle until discovery was conducted in the DOJ lawsuit.”

The organization also says it has implemented new policies to prevent harassment moving forward.

Weaver says that her ordeal has shaped her into a stronger woman. "It just made me value myself more, my self-worth," she said.

What she lost, she says, she's now gained back tenfold.

"Love, laughter, peace, joy, and having family -- that's home," she said. "And that's what I have now. And so that's why I smile at everything that I do because I didn't have to be here."

Have you been a victim of sexual harassment? If so, you can reach out to ABC News HERE. Please be advised; we will not be able to follow up with every message we receive. By contacting us, you are consenting to be contacted for further information by ABC News. If you or someone you know has been the victim of a crime, please also reach out to law enforcement.

If you have been a victim of sexual harassment in housing in the US, here is how to report it: Call the Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative at 1-844-380-6178 Send an e-mail to fairhousing@usdoj.gov, or contact HUD at 1-800-669-9777