Two more public housing residents are suing the City of Annapolis in federal court, claiming its failure to inspect public housing properties led to respiratory issues, lead exposure, discrimination and further segregated the predominantly Black population in Annapolis public housing properties.
The lawsuit was filed Friday in U.S. District Court on behalf of two Black women, Tamara Johnson and Tyonna Holliday. The women serve as the representative plaintiffs — examples to the court of the “harms and injury” suffered by all members of the class they represent, according to the complaint.
The class action complaint claims that by not inspecting properties at the same level as privately owned rental units in Annapolis, the city treated public housing residents differently than their peers in violation of state law and federal civil rights statutes. The lawsuit claims the city’s “acts, policies and practices” violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against residents, perpetuating segregation and providing “different terms, conditions and privileges of rental housing on the basis of race.”
That lack of oversight, the lawsuit claims, led to deplorable conditions, such as mold, rodent infestations and water damage in the apartments where Johnson and Holliday live with their families as well as in many of the nearly 800 public housing units across the city, all owned by the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis.
“A city government who says to the public ... that it wants to make the best public housing possible then quietly and outside of the public eye, behind closed doors, sets and implements policies that discriminatory, hurt people,” said Annapolis attorney Joe Donahue, who represents the public housing residents. “The city of Annapolis has repeatedly and deceptively chosen to treat these members of our city as second class citizens, and my clients are going to do everything we can to put a stop to all of that.”
City spokesperson Mitchelle Stephenson declined to comment on the lawsuit.
But in an interview days before the lawsuit was filed, Mayor Gavin Buckley said that inspections of housing authority units paused after the 2017 election during the change over of administrations. He estimated it took his administration roughly 18 months to get them started again.
“We moved forward once we understood the landscape,” he said.
He added that the pace of inspections slowed during the COVID-19 pandemic, but his administration was in the final phases of inspecting housing authority units. Violations were issued as they were found, he said, with a priority on health and safety problems.
No trial or motion hearing dates have been set in the lawsuit. The city will each have a chance to respond to the claims and argue the lawsuit should be dismissed for lacking merit. It could be months or years before the case ever reaches a courtroom if it ever does.
The lawsuit is the second filed by Donohue against the city in a week, coming just four days after Annapolis was named in a wrongful death complaint by the family of a public housing resident, who leveled similar claims about the unhealthy conditions in public housing that resulted from a lack of inspections. The housing authority was named in that lawsuit, but not the most recent case.
And it follows $1.8 million in two settlements of discrimination lawsuit Donohue filed in 2018 against Annapolis and the housing filed.
Johnson has lived with her daughter in Harbour House since 2017, where they have experienced sewage leaks from the apartment above, multiple rodent infestations and “persistent mold throughout their apartment,” according to the complaint. That mold has driven her daughter to use an inhaler, and the apartment has never been inspected, the complaint alleges.
Holliday has lived in her Eastport Terrace apartment with her children since 2016. The unit has never been inspected by the city in that time, the complaint claims.
Like Johnson’s, Holliday’s home has “persistent mold growth throughout the apartment,” which has worsened the asthma of Holliday and one of her children, requiring them to take medications, according to the complaint.
The Holliday’s home is also one of the multiple public housing units where “unsafe levels of lead” have recently been discovered by the housing authority, according to the complaint. The housing authority has told the family they will have to move to a new unit. Harbour House and Eastport Terrace are located in the Eastport neighborhood of Annapolis
Although city officials have declined to comment on the two lawsuits, they told Donohue in April after he notified them that a lawsuit was imminent that the city is not liable because it does not own the authority properties. The city has long maintained that the condition of the units is the primary responsibility of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, which controls and funds the Annapolis housing authority.
Assistant City Attorney Joel Braithwaite wrote in an April 14 email that there was “no plausible theory of the city’s liability.”
Donahue is co-lead counsel on the case. He has partnered with the Annapolis-based Holland Firm, which has prosecuted multiple class-action suits across the country, according to its website.
“This may be the most important lawsuit I have ever filed,” wrote Peter Holland, an attorney, in an email. “It seeks to help establish equal justice under law.”
The lawsuit makes many of the same claims Donahue made in a 2018 discrimination lawsuit, White v. Annapolis, brought by public housing residents against the city and the housing authority. That case, filed on behalf of 52 Annapolis public housing residents, claimed they were discriminated against for decades.
That case was settled in federal court in 2020, resulting in a combined $1.8 million settlement and two separate consent decree agreements by the city and the housing authority to institute a range of housing policy reforms.
The city has begun to implement those reforms, including preparing a grant application to help fund redevelopment in Harbour House and Eastport Terrace and a proposal to hire a housing authority liaison in the Planning and Zoning Department. The housing authority has rolled out plans to redevelop all of its properties.
The White case was the foundation for the civil lawsuit filed this week on behalf of the family of DaMon Fisher, who alleges Fisher’s health worsened because of severe asthma, a mold allergy and other health issues across eight years until his death in June. Three doctors wrote that his health problems were exacerbated by the mold in his apartment and poor air circulation, according to the lawsuit.
Other class-action lawsuits have been filed against jurisdictions and housing authorities across the country over the last half-century. Some have taken decades to litigate.
The latest lawsuit seeks to show the court that a group of mostly Black public housing residents has experienced living situations similar to Johnson’s and Holliday’s, including pervasive mold, rodent infestation and unsafe levels of lead.
The complaint defines the group who would be eligible for compensation if the plaintiffs are victorious as all current residents of Annapolis housing authority properties or those who lived there within the last two years prior to the complaint being filed.
Approximately 1,600 people live in public housing communities currently, with about 90% identifying as Black, according to the complaint. Five of the six housing properties are currently occupied. The sixth, Newtowne 20, has been demolished and is being redeveloped because of poor living conditions.
There are some exclusions to the class named in the suit: any plaintiffs from the White case, any employee or independent contractor for the City of Annapolis or their relatives, any employee of the court where the complaint was filed and any person who filed bankruptcy and received a discharge after they stopped to be a resident in a HACA property.
The lawsuit claims that when Annapolis implemented licensing and inspection laws for city rental units in the mid-1980s, those laws were never similarly applied to housing authority properties.
For a period of months in 2016 and 2017, the city began inspecting public housing units and found nearly 2,500 City Code violations across six properties. But the policy ended in late 2017 with all properties never fully inspected and was not resumed until mid-2019.
As in the Fisher case, Donahue argues the city maintained a separate inspection policy for public housing units meant to “circumvent the requirements” for citing and fixing routine maintenance violations. The city has denied there was any such policy.