Amanda’s infant son, Sam, lay beside her on a cool April night in 2016. Her twelve-year-old daughter, Megan, was asleep in the other room.
Maybe it was a strange noise that woke Megan. She got up and approached her mother’s doorway. Inside, she saw a man atop Amanda, strangling her. Sam was still next to her.
Megan had seen the man before.
Before he’d broken into in their apartment in Eastwood Court—a forty-six-unit complex on East Davie Street managed by the Raleigh Housing Authority—that night, Amanda says her ex-boyfriend John had beaten her in the head and stomach when he discovered she was pregnant with Sam the year before, according to a federal lawsuit she filed against the RHA in 2018.
Earlier this month, that lawsuit produced a landmark federal consent decree, believed to be the first of its kind in the country, that spells out a public housing landlord’s obligations to domestic violence survivors under the Violence Against Women Act.
For months, Amanda—as with her children and ex-boyfriend, the INDY is not using her real name to protect her privacy and shield her from potential retaliation—had asked Mike Ayodele, a manager for the RHA until 2017, to be transferred to another housing unit where John couldn’t find her, the lawsuit says. According to Amanda, John had repeatedly threatened to kill Amanda, held a gun to her head, and threatened to burn down the apartment with her and her children inside.
In August 2016, John persuaded Amanda to let him visit his son for a day, the lawsuit says. But he took Sam and refused to return the child for six weeks. Desperate, Amanda reached out to Interact, a local agency that assists survivors of domestic abuse, and the Raleigh Police Department to file for a domestic violence protective order, which was granted.
A week after Amanda filed for the protective order, according to her lawsuit, Megan was sitting on the back porch when two men approached her. They pointed guns in her face and asked where Amanda was. Megan ran inside to warn Amanda as the men tried to force open the door.
As Amanda dialed 911, the men fired five shots into the apartment, striking the wall of Amanda’s bedroom, a bullet penetrating her mattress, according to the lawsuit.
The next day, Amanda reported the shooting to her family’s social worker, who informed the police. The social worker also asked Ayodele for an emergency transfer. But Ayodele was uncooperative, rude, and hostile, the lawsuit says, telling the social worker that neither the protective order nor the shooting qualified her for a transfer.
According to the lawsuit, the social worker called the RHA’s main office. Someone there told her that Amanda was, in fact, eligible for a transfer, as John still had Sam and gunmen had shot up the apartment. But the family never heard back from the authority.
Megan identified the two gunmen in a lineup, and they were charged in the attack. Later, the girl was followed to school by two men in a car who called her a “snitch,” and Amanda allegedly received threats on social media from one of their girlfriends.
(According to Amanda’s lawyers, one of the alleged gunmen was convicted of being an accessory after the fact to the shooting, while charges against the other were dismissed. John, they say, hasn’t been convicted of any criminal charges.)
Amanda began staying with family and friends, her lawsuit says. She made another request for an emergency transfer in November 2016, this time in writing. But when an RHA agent stopped by to speak with her, she wasn’t home. A few weeks later, Amanda learned that not only had her transfer request been denied, but her lease had been terminated. She had two weeks to leave.
She filed an injunction against the RHA. The RHA responded six days before Christmas by seeking to evict her. The courts sided with Amanda, ordering the RHA to transfer her family to another unit.
The family moved in March 2017. Six months later, the RHA terminated Amanda’s lease again, according to court documents.
The INDY called the RHA last week for comment and was told to submit questions in writing. The RHA has not responded to those questions.
According to Amanda’s lawsuit, at no point did the RHA provide Amanda—or any of the RHA’s three thousand tenants—with a written notice explaining that the Violence Against Women Act offers safeguards against eviction and housing discrimination for domestic violence survivors.
“None of the tenants, we alleged, were getting these notices. They did not know [domestic violence] could be raised as a defense for an eviction,” says Suzanne Chester, a Legal Aid of North Carolina attorney who represented Amanda. “We know other clients were also impacted by the lack of information provided about their rights under VAWA.”
On October 16, the RHA agreed to settle Amanda’s case. The settlement requires the authority to provide all tenants applying for housing or facing eviction with a written copy of their rights under VAWA, provide training to managers on the Fair Housing Act, make emergency transfer forms more readily available, and compensate Amanda and her family for emotional trauma. (The amount is confidential.)
Ruth Sheehan, a lawyer representing the RHA, says the authority was “pleased” to enter into a consent decree that “sets out the new responsibilities for all public housing authorities under VAWA.”
“RHA voluntarily went above and beyond the requirements of the VAWA statute, offering to supplement its current extensive training for property managers and administrators with additional training on domestic and sexual violence and intimidation,” Sheehan told the INDY in a statement.
According to Legal Aid, which handled Amanda’s case with Duke University’s Civil Justice Clinic, the consent decree is “believed to be the first in the country to address a landlord’s obligations under the federal Violence Against Women Act.”
Police calls, noise complaints, criminal activity, failure to pay rent, and poor credit history can be symptoms of domestic abuse that can threaten a public housing tenant’s status and lead to eviction, Chester says.
“The consequences of domestic violence are higher for [public housing tenants] in that if they lose their tenancy at public housing as a result of domestic violence, they really have no other options,” Chester says.
Women account for 85 percent of domestic violence victims, and women of color, like Amanda, experience domestic violence at significantly higher rates than white women. About 90 percent of families in RHA public housing are headed by women, nearly all African Americans.
Last year, Interact worked with ninety-seven hundred victims of domestic and sexual violence in Wake County, according to Allison Strickland, Interact’s chief development officer. The actual number of domestic violence survivors in the county is likely much higher, however, as many are reluctant to seek support.
Nationally, 38 percent of survivors face homelessness after fleeing, Strickland says; in Wake County, “domestic violence is the number one reason that women often give for being the immediate cause for their homelessness.”
Amanda and her children still reside in an RHA apartment, and she and Megan were both diagnosed with PTSD in 2017, the lawsuit says. Amanda declined to comment for this story, but Chester says Amanda “is very pleased that the outcome of the case is going to benefit other tenants in public housing, and not just her.”
Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss at email@example.com.
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