The Gardens on Sixth transitional housing, managed by St. Vincent de Paul Housing Facilities, has been accused of discrimination of gay couples.
(Photo: Staff photo)
NEWARK – A lesbian couple filed a fair housing complaint with the city of Newark against St. Vincent de Paul Housing Facilities, alleging discrimination at The Gardens on Sixth, a transitional housing facility.
Melanie Dingess and Leslie Conners stated in their complaint, filed Monday with the city’s Department of Development, that they were forced to leave because the management did not want gay couples living together in one of the apartments.
Discrimination based on sexual orientation would violate a city ordinance. In 2016, city council unanimously approved adding sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as protected classes in the equal employment opportunity, fair housing and ethnic intimidation sections of city law.
The couple moved into the apartment on Jan. 1, 2018. A month later, they learned from Donna Gibson, director of operations for St. Vincent de Paul Housing Facilities, the couple was not welcome living there.
"The first week of February it was brought to our attention that there was a problem with gay couples residing at this residence," the couple stated in the complaint. "Donna Gibson told us it was an issue coming down on her that we were gay and living in the same apartment."
From the Archives – July 2018: Discrimination allegations threaten St. Vincent Housing funding
Gibson said her boss, John Paul Munhall, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Housing Facilities, had a problem with a gay couple living together at The Gardens.
"It was the end of January, beginning of February, when he said there’s girls here, both in the same apartment, and they’re a couple," Gibson said. "I didn’t know where it was leading. I said what is the issue, and he kept saying they’re a couple.
"He said we can’t have a gay couple here. The Catholic Foundation would not fund us. I was dumbfounded."
Dingess, who had been through the drug court program, then suffered a relapse, forcing a seven-day jail sentence.
"Donna coming to my apartment and telling us we need to keep it down and lay low, that was a factor, but I relapsed because I made a bad decision," Dingess said. "That’s on me."
After being released from jail, Dingess tried to return to The Gardens. Not only was she denied, Conners also had to leave, Dingess said.
"There were others who had relapsed that were not asked to leave," Dingess said.
Gibson said she told Dingess to leave, rather than have Munhall confront her with the news.
"I was more concerned at that point what he might say to her," Gibson said. "People have lost their lives when they’ve relapsed. We’re trying to help the addicted, not make it worse."
Gibson, who confirmed other residents were not asked to leave following a drug relapse, said Munhall told her to ask residents if they’re gay, if they’re married, and if they’re having sex.
"I said I’m not doing that," Gibson said. "I said you’re asking me to do stuff that’s against the law."
Gibson left the job on Oct. 18, about 14 months after she started.
"It was a very harassing situation," Gibson said. "I was really upset. I was trying to help people."
Tom Harvey, president of St. Vincent Paul Housing Facilities, released the following statement: "The St. Vincent de Paul Housing Facilities have received the complaint from the Newark Fair Housing Board and believe the complaint to be groundless and intend to cooperate with the Fair Housing Board in its investigation. That is the only statement we wish to make at this time."
Dingess said she decided to go ahead with the complaint before the one-year deadline to file, after talking to another gay couple denied housing at The Gardens.
"I met with another couple dealing with John Paul, and some of the things they were going through and how they were being mistreated," Dingess said. "And it made me realize it’s not just me and not the relapse, and it’s wrong and it’s heartbreaking."
The United Way of Licking County last year rejected an application for funding from St. Vincent de Paul Housing Facilities after learning of alleged discrimination against gay and unmarried couples living at The Gardens.
United Way Executive Director Deb Dingus said local organizations can only receive United Way funds if they pledge not to discriminate in providing services. They must sign a diversity and inclusion agreement.
"They signed the agreement, but it was clear they were not going to be able to abide by all the statements in the agreement," Dingus said at the time.
Dennis Harrington, managing attorney at Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, said last summer he had received several complaints about housing discrimination at The Gardens.
Newark City Councilman Sean Fennell, D-7th Ward, said without council’s 2016 amendment to the ordinance, the couple would have had no recourse, on a local level, to take action.
"I think it was an incredibly brave thing for these individuals to do," Fennell said. "I know it took a tremendous amount of courage to come forward like this.
"It’s the first time this process has been put to the test. It’s an opportunity to see how well this process does. The allegations have been made. I think it’s important we look into it."
Mark Mauter, the city’s development director and secretary of the Fair Housing Board, will investigate the complaint to determine if there is a reasonable basis to believe a violation of the fair housing ordinance occurred. He has 14 days to complete the investigation, but said he plans to seek an extension.
The Gardens, a 24-unit apartment complex, opened in September 2016, to provide affordable, transitional housing to people who have moved out of a shelter, but are not yet ready for permanent housing.
Fair Housing complaint process
* Mark Mauter, the city’s development director and secretary of the Fair Housing Board, investigates the complaint to determine if there is a reasonable basis to believe a violation of the fair housing ordinance occurred.
* The housing board members are Amber Balo, real estate agent with Coldwell Banker King Thompson, Phil Frye, real estate agent with Century 21 Frank Frye Real Estate, and Bill Canterberry, attorney with Southeast Ohio Legal Services. The mayor is an ex-officio member of the board.
* Mauter has 14 days, ending March 22, to complete his investigation, unless he requests an extension. He said he plans to seek an extension.
* If he finds no reason to believe the complaint, Mauter makes a recommendation to the board, which can dismiss the complaint.
* If Mauter finds reason to believe the complaint, he invites the parties to a conciliation meeting. If no agreement is reached in conciliation, Mauter reports back to the board, which schedules a public hearing.
* Following the hearing, the board will issue a finding, either dismissing the case or sending the violator a cease and desist letter.
* If a second violation occurs, the law director is authorized to file a complaint in Licking County Common Pleas Court, where a judge could issue an injunction and $1,000 fine.