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A disabled Christiansburg woman who is renting an apartment in a boarding house owned by state Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, has filed a complaint with the Virginia Fair Housing Board against March and her company, Big Bear Properties LLC.
Debra Long, a 65-year-old retiree who has relied on a wheelchair for decades, alleges that the lawmaker has “failed to make a reasonable accommodation” for her disability and has engaged in “intimidation, coercion and harassment” against her by having her adult grandson and state-paid caretaker removed from the property.
Long also alleges in her complaint, which was obtained by Cardinal News, that March refused to accommodate her request because Long had obtained a protective order and had sworn out a warrant on stalking charges against another tenant, whom she identified as the property’s maintenance manager.
March denied the allegations against her, stating in an email Thursday that Long’s grandson was “living on the property illegally without a lease” because the property’s by-right zoning doesn’t allow for more than one tenant. She also denied that the tenant who Long alleges harassed her works as her property manager.
Long moved to Apartment 2 at 3215 Roanoke Street in Christiansburg in early March. The building is located next to the Bear Dance Market & CBD Cafe.
Shortly after moving in, Long and her grandson Daniel Price, who assists her with daily activities, caught a neighbor peeping in her bathroom window, the complaint said.
The incident was only the first in a series of actions that Long alleges amounted to stalking and sexual harassment by the man.
“It was from hundreds of phone calls to sitting outside of my apartment day and night, just all kinds of comments on my phone, asking me out,” Long said in a phone interview Wednesday.
A few months later, in May, the man exposed himself to her, Long alleges. “It was when it was warm weather, he rode his lawnmower up front my apartment door, and he just did it,” she said. According to the complaint, the man also made repeated sexual comments to Long and threatened to throw her grandson off the property.
Cardinal News reached out to the man’s attorney seeking comment, but he did not respond.
March denies that the accused was working for her at the time. “(He) is a tenant living on the property and is not my property manager,” she said in the email, adding that she won’t comment on Long’s allegations of sexual harassment and stalking.
“I don’t weigh in on allegations unless I’m directly involved or witnessed,” she said in the email. “We run clean drug-free properties and don’t tolerate blatant substance abuse/domestic violence/ stalking etc. on our properties. Our lease addresses this, but the landlord-tenant act requires that as a landlord I’m limited as to what I can do until this matter is settled in court.”
Long, however, said in the phone interview that the man had identified himself to her as the property’s maintenance manager when she signed the lease with him, and that she saw him do work around the property daily.
“He mows the lawn in front of the building, and he does all kinds of maintenance,” Long said. “He does the snow removal, and he came and fixed my commode, he repaired my air conditioner. They told me I could pay my rent to (him), but I never did that, I paid at the office.”
Long said that she first told March of the man’s behavior in July. “She just laughed and she made fun of me and my concerns,” she said. March, Long said, never took any action to protect her tenant from her neighbor’s unwanted advances.
March said in the email that the man rides a riding lawn mower “as transportation around the property” and to the coffee shop next door. “He has cancer and is very ill. I don’t monitor his whereabouts or his day to day operations,” she said.
In mid-August, Long texted March about changing the locks on her unit because the man had a key to her unit and she did not feel safe, the complaint said. But Long said she never got a response – even after she asked March personally – and she changed the locks at her own expense.
Concerned for her own and her grandson’s safety, Long later that month sought help from the Southwest Virginia Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit law practice providing free civil legal services to low-income residents of 17 counties and four small cities in southwestern Virginia.
The group advised her to seek a protective order for herself and Price, which the Christiansburg General District Court granted on Sept. 8 for a period of two years, prohibiting the man from seeking contact with Long. The order also prohibited him from parking in the parking areas in front of Long’s apartment and from mowing the lawn when Long’s vehicle is parked outside.
Long also reached out to March, asking to add Price’s name to the lease, because she was dependent on her grandson’s assistance with her daily needs, such as bathing and preparing meals. But according to Long’s complaint, March denied her request, which Long said her landlord had previously “agreed to verbally” before she moved in earlier in the year.
On Aug. 31, an attorney with the Southwest Virginia Legal Aid Society followed up on Long’s behalf, seeking March’s permission to allow Price access to the property overnight to assist Long with her daily needs, and to come to the apartment throughout the day as needed. The attorney also provided letters from health care providers verifying Long’s need for overnight assistance, the complaint said.
On Sept. 9, March called the attorney representing Long. According to the complaint, March told the attorney that she had denied the request because she did not have to follow the housing code and that she was not “running a nursing home.”
March reiterated Thursday that her property’s by-right zoning only allows for one tenant. She also said in the email that there were “multiple allegations from various tenants” that Price, Long’s grandson and caretaker, had “protective orders against him from other tenants.”
Cardinal News was unable to verify March’s claims Thursday, but court documents show that Price pleaded guilty to violating a protective order in July 2020. He was sentenced to a $100 fine and 10 days in jail, with nine days suspended.
The dispute escalated on Sept. 12, when March visited Long’s unit accompanied by Christiansburg police officers who served Price with trespassing papers and removed him from the property, according to the complaint, in which Long alleges that March had her grandson removed from her home “because of the protective order against” the neighbor she accused of sexual harassment.
Long said in the phone interview that the man has violated the protective order twice since it was issued in September, and that she moved into a motel in November because she didn’t feel safe and she required the help of her grandson, who was no longer permitted to enter her apartment.
The neighbor now faces two stalking charges and is scheduled to appear before the Montgomery County-Christiansburg General District Court in early January. Long said that at a first hearing in November, March accompanied the man to court.
Long filed her complaint in November, after she had moved out of March’s property. Kerri O’Brien, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, which oversees the Virginia Fair Housing Office, said in an email earlier this week that the agency won’t comment on whether or not there is an open investigation, but that all complaints are taken very seriously.
“The Virginia Fair Housing Law makes it illegal to discriminate in residential housing on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, elderliness, familial status, disability, source of funds, sexual orientation, gender identity, or military status,” O’Brien said, adding that once an investigation is closed, “the file becomes public record and anyone can request a copy of it.”
Once the Fair Housing Office accepts a complaint for investigation, the complaint is assigned to an investigator who then interviews both the complainant and the respondent and any possible witnesses.
“During the investigation, there’s usually an effort to coordinate a conciliation. This is a voluntary process where the parties attempt to resolve the complaint by agreeing to mutually acceptable terms. That can possibly include a settlement, education or new policies with regards to the property owners or management company,” O’Brien said.
If conciliation is successful, the investigation will be suspended. If it’s unsuccessful, or if one of the parties does not want to attempt conciliation, the investigation continues until it is complete, and a final report is then given to the Fair Housing Board.
“If the Board finds discrimination, the charge is referred to the Attorney General’s Office for further action,” O’Brien said.
Because her lease at the Roanoke Street apartment does not expire until March 31, Long said she has continued to make her monthly rent payments despite no longer living there. “I still have all my stuff there, I don’t know what will happen to it,” she said.
Close to running out of money, Long said she doesn’t know how much longer she will be able to afford staying at the motel. “I’m just about out of funds, and I’m trying to get an apartment, but I don’t know if I will get it in time. Me and my grandson may end up being homeless on the street. He was the only reason that I moved in down at the apartment, it was under the agreement that he could be there to take care of me, but Marie got really angry because I pressed those charges, and she did what she did, throw him off the property.”
When asked what she wants to accomplish with her Fair Housing Board complaint against March, Long let out a deep sigh.
“I filed it because I felt like my rights had been violated, and she did not protect her tenants,” Long said.
Brooke Stephenson and Megan Schnabel have contributed to this story.