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The King County Housing Authority, along with former Executive Director Stephen Norman, are being sued in federal court by three former high-ranking female staff members there who say they were discriminated against based on their gender, race or both. 

The plaintiffs — Helen Howell, Jill Stanton and Jennifer Ramirez Robson — are claiming that under Norman’s leadership both he and the housing authority violated state and federal laws that protect people from racial and gender-based discrimination. They are seeking damages for the harm they have received, equitable compensation for women and racial or ethnic minority staff members, and other remedial actions.

“The three most senior women executives in leadership at the Housing Authority brought this federal case to hold it and its longtime Executive Director Stephen Norman accountable under anti-retaliation and discrimination laws and to protect the rights of current and future employees for equal pay, equal treatment, and equal opportunity,” said Victoria Vreeland, an attorney representing the plaintiffs on the case.

Norman is a well-known affordable-housing leader in the region and was employed as executive director of the authority from 1997 until his retirement at the end of 2021.

The case, if it makes it to trial, is currently scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in September 2023. It was originally filed in court in May and an amended complaint was submitted in July. 

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King County Housing Authority’s interim executive director at the time, Dan Watson, described the case as “truly unfortunate” upon the initial filing.

“While we can certainly continue to improve our culture, these claims by valued former team members were thoroughly investigated and are simply not supported by the facts,” Watson said. 

Within the 42-page complaint, the three plaintiffs — two, Howell and Ramirez Robson, are women of color — list examples of disparagement, pay disparities, personal attacks, a hostile work environment and retaliation they experienced under Norman’s leadership.

Howell, who is African American, was heavily recruited to join the authority’s staff as a member of its Executive Leadership Team, the complaint says, making her the only person of color on the team at the time.

The lawsuit claims that shortly after beginning at the authority, “Howell observed an agency-wide culture of fear exhibited by women and people of color, and lack of equality and respect toward women and people of color including promotional favoritism.”

The suit claims that this culture was perpetuated and modeled by Norman as its top leader.

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Stanton started at the authority in 2018. The lawsuit claims that within two months of beginning her new job, Stanton received complaints from 20 people who shared concerns about Norman’s mistreatment of women and some advised her that “the only way to avoid or deflect his abuse was to humor him, to flatter him to ingratiate herself, and to even act flirtatious.”  

Before Stanton and Howell left the authority, they sent formal communications to Norman and the authority’s executive team, reporting on some of the issues they observed related to racial and gender bias, pay inequities and more.

The authority said in a news release published on their website in May that after Norman received Howell and Stanton’s communications, he forwarded them to the board of directors. As a result, the board hired a third-party law firm to investigate the claims. The board also hired a human resources consulting firm to conduct an audit of the authority’s compensation policies and practices, specifically looking at race and gender equity. 

Following the firm’s audit, the authority said that it “found no pattern of gender or racial discrimination in compensation,” but it did identify two pay disparities to be addressed, though it didn’t elaborate on who is affected by those pay disparities.

Secondly, the law firm hired to explore Howell and Stanton’s claims found “no violations of the law, no violation of [King County Housing Authority]’s standards of conduct, no evidence of discriminatory treatment or harassment, and no retaliation against Howell, Stanton or Ramirez Robson by the agency or its leadership,” according to the same news release.

The lawsuit paints a much different picture, describing a largely white leadership team running an entity that largely serves people of color. 

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The authority’s Section 8 housing voucher and public housing programs report that 58% of its households identify as Black, Indigenous or other people of color. But when female heads of households are counted, according to Rhonda Rosenberg, spokesperson for the authority, that number increases to 86%.

The King County Housing Authority receives money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and its current budget is more than $400 million, according to Rosenberg. It employs about 450 employees and provides rental housing and rental assistance to approximately 23,400 households.

After leaving the housing authority, Howell took over as interim director of Seattle’s Human Services Department and is now the deputy CEO for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.