The federal government has charged the Altoona Housing Authority with racial discrimination for applying tighter eviction standards for a black resident than for whites.
The authority denies the charges filed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development on behalf of Freda Neely and plans to defend itself.
In 2009, Altoona 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 her from Fairview Hills without permitting a grievance hearing, based on a policy that doesn't allow one 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, which has uncovered the cases of three white tenants the authority treated with more leniency, according to the charging documents - which allege violations of the Fair Housing Act.
Authority Executive Director Cheryl Johns said she disagrees "completely with what [HUD] came up with."
"It's ludicrous," said authority member Scott Brown. "Polite language fails me."
HUD filed the charges without giving the authority an opportunity to respond - which it must, according to federal regulations, Johns said.
"It's about due process," she said.
Handling of other cases
The quick move to evict Neely contrasts with the case of three white tenants, according to HUD.
Tenant A was involved in six separate disturbances between 2008 and September 2011 before the authority moved to evict - and then only after the Human Relations Commission questioned why Tenant A was being treated more favorably than Neely, according to HUD. Even then, when the authority moved to evict, it offered Tenant A a grievance hearing, according to HUD.
Tenant A made inappropriate sexual advances to a housing authority employee; harassed her boyfriend while under the influence of alcohol, according to the boyfriend, who called police; yelled, screamed and hit her parents outside her apartment, according to a neighbor who called police; pleaded guilty to public drunkenness and disorderly conduct outside her unit; had an unauthorized person living in her unit who caused a disturbance; and punched holes in the wall of her unit, according to allegations made in a call to police, stated HUD.
Tenant B was involved in two disturbances in 2009, one in which she, her boyfriend and her brother threatened the parents of a child around whose neck her own child had placed his hands; and the other in which she called a neighbor who came out for a cigarette a derogatory name and told her to "go back into [expletive] house," according to HUD.
The authority didn't move to evict for either incident.
Tenant C was involved in three incidents in 2008 - a loud party and two screaming altercations, all of which led police to show up, with no move to evict, according to HUD.
In addition to forcing Neely to move to a more expensive apartment, the authority eliminated her from its Section 8 waiting list and caused her to spend "time and resources," while causing "depression, stomach problems, loss of sleep, headaches, loss of appetite, anger, discouragement, nervousness" and sadness, HUD stated.
HUD wants damages, a civil penalty, an order to desist and "any additional relief as may be appropriate."
"We try to make the victim who was discriminated against whole," said Melody Taylor-Blancher, Mid-Atlantic regional director of HUD's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, who spoke to the Mirror by phone.
The other side
Johns countered, saying the charges are baseless, because the authority doesn't favor whites over blacks.
She said she "runs a tight ship" and doesn't want drug dealers or criminals on her properties.
"[But] we follow procedures," she said. "I don't care what race you are or what nationality."
Her vigilance against crime has been successful, so that her properties don't have the "issues that the surrounding neighborhoods have," she said.
Neely's situation was a "one-strike" offense, she said.
According to the police report, Neely confronted a neighbor outside his house, screaming at him and demanding to see his girlfriend, who was inside, because Neely heard the girlfriend was spreading rumors that Neely was selling prescription pain meds for profit.
The man said Neely's assertions weren't true and he went back into his house, seeking to defuse the situation, according to the police report.
Neely followed him to his door, screaming, then pressed her face to the screen. Police said when she saw the girlfriend inside, she screamed at her repeatedly to come outside and also called her derogatory names.
When Neely saw the girlfriend calling police, she backed away from the door and yelled more profanities, police said.
Questioned by police, Neely admitted confronting the girlfriend but denied using profanity.
An independent witness confirmed what Neely said, according to the report.
Court a possibility
An administrative law judge from HUD will hear the case, with HUD lawyers prosecuting, unless one side asks for it to go to federal court, where the opportunity for prosecution would go to the U.S. Attorney's office in Pittsburgh, according to authority solicitor William Haberstroh.
Placing the case in federal court would allow for discovery and depositions, he said.
The authority board is weighing whether to ask for the transfer.
Haberstroh has made a recommendation but didn't say what it was.
In either venue, a judge would try to get the sides to conciliate, according to Taylor-Blancher. The standard of proof would be proof beyond a reasonable doubt, she said.
HUD wants to ensure the alleged discrimination
doesn't happen again and would likely seek an order for staff training, Taylor-Blancher said.
Changes in the wake
Pam Brazle - named by HUD as an individual defendant along with the authority as a whole - issued the eviction notice. She was manager of Fairview Hills at the time of the incident that led to the disorderly conduct charge against Neely, according to Haberstroh and Johns. She's now manager of the authority's Pleasant Village development, but moved there by her own choice, which had nothing to do with the Neely matter, Johns said.
Insurance has not covered the authority's costs, because the officers and directors' liability policy in effect at the time of the incident that led to the disorderly conduct charge - and also at the time of another incident that led to a case now in federal court - didn't cover discrimination, Haberstroh said.
That shortcoming was something no one at the authority realized at the time, officials said previously.
The authority has since changed insurance carriers to one that covers discrimination.
The authority wasn't able to come up with exactly how much it's spent so far on the Neely case, estimating it at "thousands of dollars," Johns said.
Haberstroh has been handling the Neely case, although the authority is evaluating whether that should continue, he said.
Neely declined comment.
The Neely case is one of 44 in the nation brought in fiscal 2012, which ended Sept. 30, Taylor-Blancher said.
HUD is also looking into another case involving the authority, but can't talk about it yet, because the investigation is ongoing, Taylor-Blancher said.
Asked if she thought the alleged discrimination in the Neely case was egregious, Taylor-Blancher said, "At the point where anyone's rights are violated and there isn't equal opportunity, that is egregious."
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.