Oswego tenants band together against landlord

Pictured above is 129 W. Fourth St., owned by Oswego businessman Doug Waterbury, that the city took action on in 2016. 

OSWEGO — A Syracuse fair housing agency filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday alleging widespread sexual harassment by Oswego landlord Doug Waterbury.

In a 35-page filing, CNY Fair Housing says its investigation found flagrant fair housing violations by Waterbury since at least 2012, including pressuring women “in desperate need of housing” for sexual favors in exchange for rent.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of CNY Fair Housing and six women, alleges Waterbury “(preys) upon women who need low-rent housing” and “aggressively and repeatedly pursues sexual trades from women seeking to rent (his) apartments, creates a severe and/or pervasive environment of sexual harassment … makes discriminatory statements on the basis of sex, and retaliates against women who reject his sexual advances.”

Alleging “willful, wanton and reckless” violations of the Fair Housing Act and state law, the housing agency and plaintiffs demand a trial and compensatory damages to be determined by a jury.

Waterbury, who owns almost 50 properties in Oswego County along with several upstate venues such as the Sterling Renaissance Festival, twice said he had no comment Tuesday afternoon.

The lawsuit contains allegations similar in nature to those of several women interviewed by The Palladium-Times since the spring.

The allegations in those interviews — namely that Waterbury solicited sex or oral sex in exchange for waived security deposits or cheaper rent — span more than three decades.

CNY Fair Housing has been investigating Waterbury for several months, according to multiple women with direct knowledge of the inquiry.

"Our primary concern is making sure that women know they have rights and that there's a path to justice," CNY Fair Housing Executive Director Sally Santangelo said.

Santangelo noted the suit names six Oswego County women as plaintiffs alleging sexual harassment. The women are between 24 and 32 years old, with claims ranging between 2012 and 2017.

The names in the suit released to the media were redacted due to the nature of the allegations. Washington, D.C.-based Relman, Dane & Colfax, along with CNY Fair Housing attorneys, is handling the case.

CNY Fair Housing’s suit alleges what U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development describes as “hostile environment” harassment barred by the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

Waterbury’s “pervasive sexual demands” create a “hostile environment” for women “who loathe being subjected to his frequent demands, but are required to interact with him nevertheless,” the suit alleges.

“Because these women live in constant fear of (Waterbury’s) sexual harassment, they can never be comfortable in, or fully enjoy the sanctity and privacy of, their homes,” according to the lawsuit, which described Waterbury’s alleged harassment as “oppressive.”

According to CNY Fair Housing, Waterbury has “coerced women into engaging in unwanted sexual acts,” describing two 24-year-old plaintiffs who say Waterbury in 2015 conditioned rent on their agreement to have sex with him.

Both plaintiffs, “desperate for housing” according to CNY Fair Housing, “reluctantly acquiesced to his demands in order to lease an apartment from him.”

Complaints can be filed even if an alleged victim acquiesces to sexual demands or experienced no loss of housing or funds, according to HUD.

The roommates alleged Waterbury more than once showed up at their apartment unannounced, without permission, and also repeatedly called them demanding sex.

The women allege when they asked Waterbury to fix a furnace and eradicate rodents and overflowing garbage in a garage, his response was to demand more frequent sex, according to the court filing.

Two other plaintiffs allege Waterbury “demanded (they) sign a document giving him the power to evict them immediately” after they rejected his offer to perform “personal favors.”

The suit alleges Waterbury's "widespread practices of sexual harassment follow a similar pattern," with the landlord encouraging potential tenants to meet him alone at apartment showings, followed by rent quotes "much higher than advertised and out of line with comparable rentals in the area."

"Defendant Waterbury quotes these inflated rental prices to prospective female tenants to gain leverage to negotiate unwelcome sexual trades," the lawsuit alleges.

If a woman tells Waterbury she cannot afford to pay the amount he requires, "or expresses any sense of desperation about finding housing," he "attempts to capitalize on her vulnerability by using his control over her housing to force her into unwanted sex acts," the lawsuit alleges.

CNY Fair Housing argued that Waterbury owning a substantial amount of the Port City’s low-rent housing puts the women at a disadvantage, with a “significant portion of affordable housing” unavailable unless they subject themselves to the landlord’s “unwanted sexual advances and demands."

Santangelo said CNY Fair Housing's investigation was one of the "largest cases we've handled certainly in a number of years," spanning several months and involving interviews with more than a dozen people.

The agency has also conducted outreach in the area "to try to identify additional victims (and) to educate the people working in the Oswego area such as caseworkers or others regarding harassment and housing," Santangelo said.

Oswego Police Chief Tory DeCaire said that the Oswego City Police Department has received "at least one report from a victim alleging inappropriate and suspicious activity involving a local landlord. There is an ongoing investigation into those allegations."

Oswego County District Attorney Greg Oakes declined to comment Tuesday.

CNY Fair Housing says its investigation into Waterbury is ongoing.

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