Housing Authority settles discrimination lawsuit

The Altoona Housing Authority has entered into a consent order with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh that requires it to pay $35,000 in damages to a black resident whom it tried to evict – allegedly for behavior that didn’t lead to evictions for some white tenants.

The three-year order filed in federal court in Johnstown in the racial discrimination case of plaintiff Freda Neely does not include an admission of wrongdoing by the authority.

In addition to the damage payment, it requires biannual training of employees on fair housing, adoption of a policy for handling complaints by applicants and tenants, posting of a nondiscrimination policy in lease and management offices, inclusion of that policy in advertisements and filing of compliance reports to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

The consent order also requires the authority to provide Neely with a Section 8 housing subsidy voucher that she can take elsewhere, in keeping with her wish to move to the New Jersey-New York area, according to Dave Andrews, the authority’s attorney in the case.

Neely didn’t return a call for comment.

But former authority employee Karen Fletcher – a supporter of Neely – said she was surprised the payment to Neely wasn’t higher – like $50,000 or $75,000.

The case grew out of a 2009 incident, in which police cited Neely for disorderly conduct for “screaming and yelling and using obscene language [and] causing public alarm” in an altercation with a neighbor. Shortly afterward, the authority moved to evict Neely from its Fairview Hills housing project without permitting a grievance hearing, based on its “one-strike” policy that doesn’t require a hearing if there’s a charge of criminal activity that threatens the health, safety or right to peaceful enjoyment by authority residents, according to HUD’s charging document.

Neely filed a discrimination complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and HUD.

The authority eventually asked for the case to go from the administrative jurisdiction of HUD to federal district court, which meant the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuted the case.

According to the federal complaint, the authority

didn’t apply its one-strike policy “in numerous instances involving white tenants with lease violations that were as serious or more serious than the lease violation committed by Ms. Neely.”

For example, it didn’t apply the policy in the case of white Tenant A, according to the complaint. In one instance, Tenant A’s ex-boyfriend complained she was harassing him and threatening suicide. In another, neighbors complained the tenant was screaming, yelling and hitting her parents. In another, she was arrested for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct, later pleading guilty to both. And in other instances, an unauthorized person living in her unit caused a disturbance, and she allegedly screamed and punched holes in her walls.

The authority only moved to evict her after getting a call from the Human Relations Commission, asking why Tenant A was apparently treated more favorably than Neely, according to the complaint.

The authority agreed to the mediated settlement as a “business decision” to avoid the cost of defending itself over several years against Neely’s charge, according to Andrews.

Pre-trial discovery can get very expensive, he said.

Beyond the damages imposed by the consent order, the costs of the case for the authority were “not all that much,” Andrews said.

He didn’t know the exact amount.

Despite what someone might conclude from the damages payment, there was no “unequal treatment” of Neely, Andrews said.

There was no racism intended by the board or staff, according to authority member Scott Brown.

The case was not really about racism but about playing “the race card,” he said. “It was legal extortion.”

The authority needed to decide whether it should “die over principle” or “settle before you go broke,” he said.

The real victims in the case are “all the people this money could help,” he said.