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Across the US, sexual harassment at the hands of landlords, property managers and others in the housing industry can drive poor women and their children into homelessness. It is a problem badly understood and virtually unstudied.

The few years had been a struggle. She'd left an abusive relationship, been arrested, wandered out and then back into her children's lives. Just as she seemed to be getting back on track, a probation violation sent Sellers to prison for the first time. After five months, she returned to her hometown of Laurinburg, North Carolina.

She was broke and homeless, starting over at the age of She slept on couches. She got a job at a supermarket, then another at a fast-food restaurant. So when Four-County Community Services - a local housing agency - offered her an opportunity to move into a white panelled, three-bedroom trailer home on the outskirts of town, she readily accepted. That's when the trouble started. She had applied for the federally subsidised Housing Choice Voucher Program, better known by its former title, Section 8.

In the US, 2. Laurinburg is located in one of the most economically depressed counties in North Carolina. Vouchers are coveted, and some people languished on the waiting list for as long as 10 years.

Four-County was the local agency entrusted with disbursing them. Based on need, Sellers qualified relatively quickly. Another Section 8 tenant had abandoned the double-wide trailer on Dorset Drive, and Sellers was told that if she cleaned it, she could move right in.

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Every morning, Sellers' mother dropped her off alone at the property. For a week, she hauled out broken furniture, pulled rotten food from the refrigerator, scrubbed dog excrement off the carpets and poisoned the cockroaches. There was extensive damage to the property that Sellers couldn't fix herself, but before the landlord would make the repairs, an inspector from Four-County had to take a look. Sellers remembers the first time the agency's inspector, a former North Carolina state police officer named Eric Pender, came to the property with a clipboard in hand.

As she continued to clean, she says the conversation quickly turned from the house to Sellers' personal life. Undeterred, Sellers says Pender asked her if she "gives head" or if she'd ever been paid for sex, implying that his ature on the inspection was the only thing standing between her and a place to live.

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At one point, she says he called her into the bathroom under the pretence of showing her a needed repair. She says he pulled her in by her hips, blocked the doorway and took out his penis. She managed to push him out of the way.

Sellers was horrified. And she says it was the first in a string of incidents. Each time he came, it was like, 'You owe me before I this paper. And you gotta make a decision. She worried she would lose her voucher if she complained to the housing agency. She tried to hire a lawyer who told her to come back when she had witnesses. A private investigator told her she couldn't afford him.

A colleague she confided in thought she was doing Sellers a favour by going to Pender's boss. But the boss told Pender, who confronted Sellers as she was raking the backyard of Dorset Drive. She managed to secretly record the conversation on her mobile phone.

On the recording, Pender said he heard Sellers was "getting tired of me asking you for pussy".

But it's so easy to lose it. Just before the recording ends, he added, "We straight - well, we almost straight. You'll take care of me later on. Sellers says there were moments when she considered giving in. After all, he was a respected local official, a former cop. She was a homeless single mother with a criminal record. Standing in a pile of dead leaves in the backyard of Dorset Drive, Sellers felt utterly alone.

What she didn't know at the time was she was just one of dozens of women who had gone through something similar.

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In a post-Harvey Weinstein and MeToo world, most people are well aware sexual harassment occurs in the workplace. But across the US, women are subjected to it in a far more intimate setting - their homes.

Every year, hundreds of state and federal civil lawsuits are filed against landlords, property owners, building superintendents and maintenance workers alleging persistent, pervasive sexual harassment and misconduct, covering everything from sexual remarks to rape. This includes so-called "quid pro quo" sexual harassment, wherein the perpetrator demands sex in exchange for rent or repairs.

Martisha Coleman, a young mother who brought a case against her landlord in East St Louis, Illinois, says after repeatedly rebuffing advances, she became so scared of him that she started pushing her bed against the door at night. She says he retaliated when she wasn't home. The case is awaiting a judge's ruling.

Situations like Coleman's are virtually unstudied. There has never been a comprehensive national survey of tenants to track the frequency of sexual harassment in housing, or to determine where or to whom it occurs most often.

Most advocates and experts believe poor women and women of colour are disproportionately affected, though that is based mainly on experiential evidence and a single, year-old study. Advocates say victims who are undocumented or who do not speak English are also easy targets, as are women fleeing domestic violence.

The lack of affordable housing stock in major American cities compounds the desperate circumstances renters can find themselves in. A single eviction can preclude victims from huge swathes of the public and private housing market. Judy tried to put what happened in Laurinburg behind her. After all, she'd already lost the tiny red house with the blue shutters on the east side of town, and was forced to move back home to Baltimore, Maryland, crammed into a single apartment with her adult children.

Besides that, she was ashamed. Judy requested the BBC not publish her full name. But then a cousin called to tell her about a story in the local Laurinburg newspaper - Eric Pender and his boss John Wesley at Four-County Community Services were in big trouble. Three women were accusing the men of years of sexual misconduct at the housing agency.

Judy pulled up the story, and Googled Craig Hensel, the young lawyer who had finally heard Khristen Sellers' story and agreed to file a lawsuit.

Pender was also criminally charged with simple assault. AroundJudy moved to Laurinburg and received a housing voucher from Four-County. She was looking for a change of pace - a country lifestyle, far away from big city problems. Four years later, she says she made a crucial mistake - she ed on a lease for a public housing unit in Baltimore for her daughter.

Receiving federal housing benefits in two places constitutes fraud.

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A caseworker at Four-County Community Services informed Judy the voucher for the little red house would be terminated. Judy left that meeting distraught, and says that's when she bumped into Pender. She says he offered his help. Pender had always had something to say about her looks, her shape, the smell of the oil she wore, Judy says.

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Twice, she claims, he groped her buttocks. This time, she alleges, he told her he could help with her voucher situation if, "one hand washes the other. You help me out, I'll help you out. I didn't have the money. According to Judy, Pender came to her home after hours for a single sexual encounter.

Housing harassment history

She assumed Pender would be able to do something to save the voucher. Instead, she says, he did nothing and the voucher was terminated.

One of the last times she saw Pender, Judy made two secret recordings on her cell phone. In the recording, he made comments about her coming to his home, and referenced oral sex. She says she thought she could play it to Pender's girlfriend to get back at him, but never did. That's like being a whore or a prostitute.

That's how I felt. But months after her move back to Baltimore, she read that not only were three other women claiming sexual harassment, one had also acquiesced to the sexual demands "out of fear" her benefits would be negatively impacted if she refused. Even if a sexual harassment complaint eventually reaches the proper authorities, the act of reporting can lead to an eviction.

That's what Tonya Robinson says happened to her, after she was assaulted by a property manager at an apartment complex in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Twenty-six women later came forward with similar allegations.

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