By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
In the mid-2000s, Sarah Morton, a young attorney, and Vanessa Keasler, a law clerk and soon-to-be attorney, joined the Harrisonburg office of Blue Ridge Legal Services, a nonprofit civil legal aid organization. As they began picking up cases, they discovered a pattern of complaints against one local landlord mistreating his tenants, particularly women.
It would take over a decade of work, along with their team — and the intervention of the U.S. Justice Department — before that pattern would result in consequences for the landlord, Gary T. Price.
At the conclusion of a two-year investigation, the Department of Justice identified eight victims, and negotiated a settlement with Price and his lawyers, which was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia on Sept. 29. A federal judge signed off on the agreement Oct. 2.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division announced Price would pay $330,000 in compensation, to be divided among the aggrieved parties — most, if not all, are former tenants — for “making unwelcome sexual comments and advances toward female tenants, offering housing benefits in exchange for sexual acts,” threatening retribution if the women denied him, using racial slurs against tenants, and preventing tenants from having African American guests in their homes on the basis of race. The DOJ’s order also requires Price to pay $5,000 in a civil penalty.
In addition to financial penalties, the decree prohibits Price from “participating in the management of rental properties in the future.”
According to the Rockingham County GIS map, Price owns multiple properties under the company GTP Investment Properties, LLC, that total more than 19 acres in Rockingham County and Harrisonburg, and all together are assessed at $384,000. On that land are 20 mobile homes and a cinder block house.
Three of the properties where the Justice Department says Price harassed and discriminated against tenants were owned by Alberta Lowery, who employed Price as a property manager. His duties included accepting or rejecting applications, establishing the terms of leases, collecting rent, making repairs and communicating with and evicting tenants.
Over the years, the attorneys at Blue Ridge had heard from clients about the transgressions the Department of Justice identified – and more.
“Some of the allegations, if you were to hear them individually and not as a pattern, they would be stunning,” Keasler told The Citizen. “And to see them, just so many writ large the way they are, you can see this is something that’s been going on for some time and did not have a small impact on their lives … he had control over their housing situation.”
Morton remembered one client who said Price would make explicit advances to her in front of her young daughters.
The Department of Justice order stated that Price’s conduct, documented as far back as 2000, included other instances of harassment.
In one case, Price threatened to evict a female tenant if she did not perform oral sex in exchange for rent, and suggested that he hire her out for sex work to apply towards the rent, according to the DOJ order. This went on for at least three years.
Price asked another female tenant listed in the ruling to perform sexual favors in lieu of rent, and when she refused, he initiated court proceedings against her and repeatedly surveilled her bedroom, the order says.
Keasler said multiple clients told her Price stalked them in this way – “looking through their windows, blocking their driveways, in some cases showing up at their place of employment.”
In other cases, according to the ruling, Price told tenants that he did not rent to biracial couples, used “repeated racial epithets and slurs” against tenants and African American guests and told tenants they could not have African American guests visit their homes.
Price only provided a brief comment to The Citizen about the case.
“It’s all a bunch of lies. I can’t say much about it, I don’t think,” he said, when reached by phone. “It was past due renters that made up those stories.”
‘Where else are you going to go?’
Five of the tenants the Department of Justice identified as having been subjected to sexual harassment and racial discrimination lived in a trailer park that Price ran – and still owns – on Guinea Lane between Harrisonburg and Linville. Some of the mobile homes are missing siding; the roofs on others are patched with tarps.
Keasler said the units had yards and space for her clients’ pets, including large dogs. Some of her clients were mothers working multiple jobs, scraping by with limited income, and thus, limited housing options.
“I think some of the allure of mobile homes is that they offer a type of autonomy for the price range that you can’t get from, like, an apartment. And when you drive through there, you can see what some of the allure would be, but you can also see the condition of the units,” Keasler said. “The truth of the matter is if your best option is to rent a unit from Gary Price, you don’t have a lot of options on the table. And I think he weaponized that housing instability in the mistreatment of his tenants.”
“The fact that they didn’t have a lot of options became a weapon,” Morton echoed. “There were times when he would explicitly reference that – he’d say, ‘where else are you going to go?'”
Both attorneys said those tenants typically came to Blue Ridge for help with other legal matters, such as disputes over unpaid rent. Then, as they developed relationships with the lawyers, the stories of sexual harassment would slowly come out.
“What’s really hard for me is when I look back at these old files … I had this righteous indignation, that he will stop,” Morton said.
‘Weaponized’ the court system
John Krall is another attorney in Harrisonburg who has represented clients against Price in civil suits dating back to the 1990s. Krall said abuses continued for so long, in part, because the cases were separate.
“Blue Ridge has a long history with Gary Price, and they did tremendous work over many years,” Krall said. But “they were dealing with individual cases … it was just one case after another.”
Keasler also said many of the tenants were in vulnerable positions.
“Talking about those types of things is uncomfortable in the best of circumstances,” Keasler explained. “And most of our clients are not normally in their ideal situation.”
Also working against the tenants was Price’s familiarity with the court system. Price has been a plaintiff in 103 civil cases since November 2010, many of them against his renters, according to Harrisonburg/Rockingham General District Court records.
More than a third of those cases were attempts to get money, such as owed rent, through warrants in debt and wage garnishment. Out of all 103 cases, three are still pending and 29 were dismissed outright.
Keasler said some cases are part of the “various forms of retribution” that Keasler said Price attempted on tenants who spoke out against him.
In early 2013, a female tenant filed three criminal complaints against Price for assault and battery, petit larceny and using obscene language over a telephone. One of her male family members also filed a criminal complaint against Price for assault and battery. They contended that Price had shoved both of them on one occasion, pushing the female tenant into a door; called her on the phone for months, making sexual advances and lewd comments despite her repeated refusal; and stole her lawnmower.
The General District Court dismissed three of those cases but ruled against Price on the assault charge. He then appealed that case to the Rockingham Circuit Court, where it was dismissed.
After the female tenant filed those complaints, Price sued her nine times over the next four years. He sued her boyfriend 10 times.
Price also was arrested on a charge of assault and battery in 2016 — a case that was dismissed; and on a felony charge of destruction of property, a vehicle, in 2017. The prosecutor eventually dropped those charges, and a few months later, Price unsuccessfully sued the vehicle owner for money.
“One of the greatest travesties of this situation has been that Gary is very skilled at weaponizing the judicial system,” Keasler said. “Most people don’t go to court very often. And when they do, it’s one of the worst days of their lives, so they’re terrified.”
‘Out of the blue’ help
The Blue Ridge lawyers represented their clients in these cases individually, chopping off one hydra head at a time, until the Department of Justice contacted them in the summer of 2017.
It was “out of the blue,” Executive Director John Whitfield said.
An attorney with the department’s Civil Rights Division told Whitfield the Justice Department had never litigated a Fair Housing Act case in this area of Virginia and asked if Blue Ridge knew of issues they should look into. Whitfield was buoyed by the fact that the department wasn’t bound by the usual statute of limitations on sexual harassment in housing, which is one year when filing a complaint with either the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Virginia Fair Housing Office.
Instead, the Department of Justice’s clock doesn’t start ticking until it learns of the violation, Whitfield said. He hoped that if enough tenants came forward, the department could bring forward a “pattern and practice lawsuit” against Price.
Whitfield told the Department of Justice that “we’ve had this problem with Gary Price … for years we’ve had clients tell us about that. Maybe this is the way we can finally get something done.”
The department told him to direct tenants to contact its staff. That began a herculean effort for Keasler, Morton and their colleagues to dig through years of records and try to track down the tenants who had shared details of their experiences of harassment and discrimination. Whitfield said he thinks they identified roughly a dozen clients, but many proved difficult to contact. Some had moved out of the area. One had passed away. And some just weren’t comfortable coming forward.
“With some of our clients, communication is difficult,” Keasler said. “They might not have the most stable housing situation. Their phone numbers often get changed.”
It was “like a little mini victory just to find someone,” Morton said.
‘So incredibly brave’
The Justice Department’s investigation began in earnest in 2018 when the department’s attorneys came to Harrisonburg. Justice Department officials, however, declined to comment to The Citizen about the investigation or ruling.
In a press release the Justice Department issued about the order in September, Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel Bubar said the “settlement ought to send a strong message that we will not tolerate harassment and discrimination in housing.”
For local lawyers who represented Price’s former tenants, it meant even more.
“It was a long time coming. I was really excited when I got the phone call from the U.S. Attorney saying they were putting in this agreement,” Krall said. “I think they got a really strong result and our community can be proud of the work that they did, and the various people that worked with them deserve a lot of credit.”
For the attorneys who helped their clients achieve a modicum of justice after so many years, what most impresses them is the strength of the women.
“They’ve suffered some pretty intense experiences in their time living in his rental properties. And in fighting back, they also have endured various forms of retribution,” Keasler said. “And despite the fact that … they’re mothers of small children, they have limited time, they have limited income, they work constantly – they still made time to make sure that they spoke with the Department of Justice.”
Morton said the women faced so many obstacles but persevered.
“This doesn’t define their story, but this is one thing that they’re going to live with for the rest of their life. They were harassed, and no one should have to have this level of invasion of privacy. It’s something that can make you sort of frightened, or hard to trust people,” Morton said. “I just think the women that came forward … were just so incredibly brave.”
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