JOHNSTOWN - The Altoona Housing Authority is denying that it discriminated against a black female tenant more than three years ago when it initiated an eviction proceeding under its "One Strike Policy" that, it is charged by the federal government, denied her a due process hearing.
The authority will file an answer in the next few weeks to the charges that it handled eviction cases differently for several white residents than it did for the black tenant, authority attorney David P. Andrews said.
"The position of the authority is that it has complied with all applicable federal laws and regulations," he said.
The former tenant named in the lawsuit is Freda Neely, a retired special education teacher from New York City, who resides with her son and grandson in Altoona.
Neely moved from New York City because of health concerns and as a way to get away from the fast-paced city life, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court. She also felt it would give her son and grandson a "calmer atmosphere than what is offered in a major city."
The federal government claims the authority violated the federal Fair Housing Act and has asked the court to stop the Housing Authority from discriminating against individuals because of race. It also asks that steps be taken to prevent a recurrence of Neely's case and suggests that money damages may be appropriate.
Neely's problems began on Aug. 19, 2009, according to the lawsuit.
Neely became embroiled in a verbal argument with a male neighbor after approaching him and stating she wanted to talk to his girlfriend. She claimed the girlfriend was spreading false rumors about her.
City police issued Neely a citation for disorderly conduct, a summary charge that was eventually overturned on appeal to the Blair County Court of Common Pleas.
The authority exercised its "One Strike Policy" in seeking Neely's eviction from her Fairview Hills apartment, the government claims.
Under the policy, a public housing authority, at its discretion, may forego a grievance hearing if there is "any criminal activity that threatens the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises of other residents or employees of the public housing authority," it was stated.
The government then cited four instances in which white tenants, their families or boyfriends, caused disturbances. In each case, the authority did not invoke the policy in handling the situations, although eviction proceedings occurred in some of the cases.
The authority did not use the policy against a person referred to as "Tenant A," despite several instances in which she was intoxicated and screaming outside her apartment. She pleaded guilty to public drunkenness and disorderly conduct.
The One Strike Policy was not invoked and no eviction was sought involving "Tenant B," whose son tried to choke the child of another tenant. Tenant B, her boyfriend and brother then allegedly threatened the young victim's parents. Police issued no citations in the case.
Similar situations occurred with Tenants C and D, the government said.
Neely and the authority agreed to a consent order on May 12, 2011, in which she agreed to vacate her Fairview Hills home.
Neely was under the impression that the Housing Authority would provide her with a Section 8 voucher, allowing her to rent an approved dwelling, but that was not part of the consent order, the lawsuit stated.
Because of the eviction, Neely is not eligible for a voucher.
The authority is also the defendant in a lawsuit that began two years ago when it attempted to cut off Section 8 vouchers for two city families - Ashley Thompson, and Deborah and David Sills - because they allegedly allowed unauthorized individuals to stay in their homes.
The families challenged the due process hearings that they received, noting that their cases were unfairly resolved based on facts that were not presented during the hearings.
That lawsuit is stalled as U.S. District Court Judge Kim Gibson attempts to determine if the case should become a class action lawsuit involving many more former authority clients than just the two local families.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.