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Prosecutors open Baltimore public housing sex-for-repairs investigation

Eleven Baltimore women have alleged they were denied repairs in public housing units by handymen who demanded sex

Prosecutors in Baltimore are investigating allegations that three maintenance men working for the city's troubled public housing authority refused to perform basic repairs for female residents unless they had sex with them.

The Baltimore state's attorney's office announced the probe Wednesday.

"Due to the seriousness of the allegations our office is conducting an investigation to determine whether criminal charges should be brought," said spokeswoman Rochelle Ritchie in a statement.

The statement did not elaborate on how the office will conduct its investigation.

In the lawsuit against the city's housing authority, attorneys for 11 women, including four new plaintiffs announced Tuesday, say they were denied basic and necessary repairs in public housing units because they refused to have sex with handymen.

Some of the alleged abuses date back to 2008, according to the suit.

Additionally, the suit alleges that the housing authority actively thwarted an investigation conducted by the local chapter of the municipal employees union that resulted in a recommendation that the handymen in question be fired.

Baltimore Housing Authority spokeswoman Tania Baker said Tuesday that the agency is aware of the allegations and continues to conduct an internal investigation.

Activists who staged a sit-in at City Hall last week over demands for police reforms and other changes in the city had urged authorities to fire the city housing commissioner, Paul Graziano, over the matter. The members of the Baltimore Uprising coalition is rooted in the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in April from injuries received while in police custody. His death sparked unrest and rioting in the city.  The coalition members made reference to the lawsuit by the women in a list of demands presented to city officials.

Cary Hansel, an attorney representing the women, said Wednesday that he has met with Graziano and said the parties have "opened a dialogue."

"Our goal is always the fastest path to justice. Very often that's outside of court, but if we don't get a satisfactory result outside of court we'll go to court," Hansel said.

Also on Wednesday, tenants from several complexes gathered outside the Gilmor Homes to demand Graziano be fired and to condemn "inhumane" conditions — mice scurrying past their children's beds, roaches behind the walls and mold that triggers asthma attacks, according to the Baltimore Sun. That protest came as elderly and disabled residents of another returned to their apartments after spending two nights in a hotel because of lack of water and heat. 

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said on Wednesday that Graziano will not be fired as a result of the sex-for-repairs probe. She said the housing authority takes the safety and well-being of its residents very seriously but could not discuss the ongoing investigation in detail.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Wednesday announced proposed new rules for protecting people in government-sponsored housing from harassment, including sexual, the Sun reported.

Gustavo Velasquez, a HUD assistant secretary, said about 1,600 such harassment complaints have been filed against federally subsidized housing providers in 2015, with sexual harassment claims being the most common.

Al Jazeera with The Associated Press

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