In 1982, Tammy Shellhammer, a young white woman, walked into the Toledo Fair Housing office because she felt she was the victim of discrimination by her landlord, Norman Lewallen. In their interactions, Lewallen was sexually aggressive with her and had begun to demand that she pose for nude photos, perform oral sex, or have intercourse with him. When she repeatedly refused, Lewallen evicted Tammy and her husband.
After talking with Mrs. Shellhammer, the all-female staff of the center and I knew we had to take this on.” Shanna remembered as we spoke about the case. “I went to the most progressive attorney we knew, C. Thomas McCarter. I told him, ‘This ought to be against the law.’”
“It ought to be, but it isn’t.” he told Smith, “There is no case law to support sexual harassment as the basis for a Fair Housing claim. And most of the women who rent from this guy are black and on welfare. No one is going to believe them. But listen, I am willing to try if you are.”
On December 11, 1983, the New York Times reported “A young couple [should
add that Shellhamer and her husband were both plaintiffs] …have been ruled victims of sexual harassment and are eligible for damages under Title VIII of the Fair Housing Act. The ruling is believed to be the first of its kind under fair housing laws.”
More than 35 years ago, it’s important to remember this other group of courageous silence breakers who revealed how predatory landlords made girls and women subject to sexual assault and violation in their own homes. In fair housing, #MeToo.