SUNY Oswego targets off-campus housing issue

Pictured above is 163 W. Bridge St., a condemned property owned by Oswego landlord Doug Waterbury, who faces a federal civil rights lawsuit over sexual harassment allegations.

OSWEGO — A 27-year-old woman says she found herself facing a landlord looming over her and blocking a door after showing her an apartment.

The woman alleges she then received an unwanted and illicit offer from Oswego landlord Doug Waterbury: Oral sex in exchange for a waived security deposit.

The alleged encounter with Waterbury took place in 2012, according to the woman, who spoke with The Palladium-Times in April on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing CNY Fair Housing investigation into the landlord’s rental practices with tenants and apartment hunters over the last several years.

Now 32, the woman says she feels immense guilt for not pressing the matter with authorities years ago, but encouraged other women not to feel guilty if they’re too fearful to come forward with similar allegations.

“If women have the ability to come forward, then do so,” she said. “If you don’t, it’s OK.”

CNY Fair Housing’s investigation led to this week’s filing of a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the housing agency and six female plaintiffs alleging sexual harassment by Waterbury between 2012 and 2017.

Reached by phone earlier this week, Waterbury twice declined to comment when offered the opportunity to respond to the lawsuit and a series of sexual harassment allegations spanning 30 years made by women in interviews with The Palladium-Times.

CNY Fair Housing's months-long inquiry has included interviews and counseling with more than a dozen women, according to the housing agency and women familiar with the investigation.

The investigation received a boost from women who connected on Facebook in the spring and shared similar experiences about sex-for-rent schemes allegedly offered by Waterbury, according to multiple women with direct knowledge of the investigation.

Separately, more than a dozen women over the last several months shared their stories with The Palladium-Times after the newspaper published articles highlighting tenants’ experiences at two of Waterbury’s condemned properties in the fall.

Two of the women quoted in this article shared their stories with CNY Fair Housing, including the 32-year-old woman allegedly pressed for oral sex in 2012 — who is a plaintiff in Tuesday’s lawsuit — and a 28-year-old woman who alleges Waterbury made unwelcome remarks about her sexuality in 2016.

Several women told The Palladium-Times they felt “backed into” a wall or a corner by Waterbury at least once, alleging he used his size to intimidate them.

“I was scared to death of him,” alleged a 53-year-old Fulton woman who said she rented a Waterbury-owned apartment on Oswego’s east side for three months in the late 1980s with assistance from Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The woman said the first time she met Waterbury was during an apartment showing. They allegedly had an awkward encounter in a bathroom where she was “cornered.”

“He said ‘I know you’re on social services and don’t have much money, so you probably can’t afford the security deposit,’” she alleges. “I told him I’d like to work on it. He said, ‘Oh, we can work on it. You can either have sex with me or we could do other things.’ I said ‘No thank you, I’ll pay,’ and pushed my way (out of the bathroom).”

The woman said she would have rejected the apartment outright but she’d been evicted from her previous home and needed immediate housing for her three young children.

HUD officials helped her find other accommodations for her family within three months, she said.

Almost two dozen women interviewed since September, even some who say no sexual harassment occurred, accused Waterbury of trying to dominate conversations by invading personal space.

“He’d corner you, back you up against a wall and make you feel threatened,” alleged a 50-year-old Oswego woman who said she was 22 when she rented a Syracuse Avenue apartment from Waterbury for about 18 months in the 1980s. “This is like 30 years later and I can still remember him intimidating me.”

The lawsuit filed Tuesday described Waterbury’s alleged harassment as “oppressive” and “relentless,” arguing the long-time landlord has “made a cottage industry of acquiring residential properties, many of which are barely inhabitable, and renting them with little to no improvements to low-income Oswego-area residents who are in desperate need of rental housing.”

One woman told a reporter that when she was short on rent at an east-side apartment in 2013, Waterbury pressed her for sex while her then-boyfriend and young son were out at the library.

She was 19 years old at the time.

According to the woman, Waterbury allegedly mentioned oral sex and a ride in his truck to discuss the rent owed.

She said she rebuffed him before breaking the lease and moving out the following week.

“He didn’t mention anything, we just didn’t get our security deposit back,” the woman said.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits sexual harassment, including explicit or implicit “quid pro quo” offers of sex-for-rent schemes and pervasive or intimidating behavior described by lawmakers as “hostile environment” harassment.

Other women told The Palladium-Times that while they never received sex-for-rent offers from Waterbury, they still allegedly endured pervasive and unwelcome advances and unsettling remarks.

One woman said she was 23 in 2013 when she moved with her then-boyfriend and son into a West Fourth Street apartment owned by Waterbury.

“Once my boyfriend and I split, he would show up telling me if I need a boyfriend or male companion, to let him know,” she alleged. “He would always be calling my phone and following me around. He always told me how pretty I was, how I deserved better. At first I thought it was a joke, but he continued and was quite serious.”

The woman specifically recalled Waterbury allegedly offering to take her to his Sylvan Beach Amusement Park. She said she declined.

After repeatedly telling him she wasn’t interested, Waterbury’s alleged advances were less persistent, the woman said, “but he continued to call” sometimes.

A 28-year-old former tenant of a condemned building owned by Waterbury said the landlord never propositioned her, but he allegedly asked multiple unwelcome questions about her sexuality, including “what made her want to marry a woman,” and whether she’d “ever sleep with men again.”

The woman shared her story with The Palladium-Times as well as CNY Fair Housing as part of its inquiry.

A Fair Housing Act memorandum in 2010 interpreted the law’s prohibition on sex discrimination “to include discrimination related to an individual’s sexual orientation where evidence establishes that the discrimination is based on sex stereotypes.”

CNY Fair Housing says its investigation is ongoing.

Real property records show Waterbury owns almost 50 Oswego County properties along with the Campus Hill Apartments in Morrisville and Empire Attractions, which includes the Sterling Renaissance Festival, Sylvan Beach Amusement Park and Santa’s Workshop in Essex County’s North Pole.

The Palladium-Times confirmed Waterbury owned the properties mentioned by most of the women interviewed, but three could not recall exact addresses.

Most of the women said they had not retained records of lease agreements, or email or text exchanges with the landlord.

Most of the women interviewed said they were unaware of any investigations into allegations against Waterbury when they agreed to go on the record with The Palladium-Times, which chose not to publish the names of alleged victims of sexual harassment due to the nature of the allegations.

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