Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Landlords and Sexual Harassment

A diary on Kos discusses this issue:

I am an ex-fair housing lawyer who prosecuted several civil sexual harassment cases for the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, on behalf of aggrieved women. (I also co-wrote the article that Cyrus cited at the beginning of this diary.)

I want everyone to know that sexual harassment in housing happens a LOT. There aren't any good statistics out there, but I know from my experience on these cases that we were barely scratching the surface. Some observations, again just from my own experience and that of my colleagues: Housing harassment is not usually an isolated phenomenon...


but rather a situation where the landlord makes it his standard operating procedure to rent to and harass vulnerable women.

Most of the time, there are multiple victims in each case. (The smallest number of victims I ever had was 7, the most was 21. I think one of my colleagues had a case with 24.)

While I have read about cases of landlords who harass middle-class tenants, the usual targets are low-income women with children. All but one of my cases involved women who qualified for public or subsidized housing. (The exception, horribly enough, was a trailer park outside of a military base, where wives of men who were in Iraq were being harassed by their landlord. A few of the women couldn't move because there was not enough base housing for families, and the other trailer parks in the area were full.) In fact, some of the women in my cases were IN Section 8 housing when they were harassed. That's right -- their landlord was receiving taxpayer dollars for the pleasure of harassing them.


One poster was correct in making a point about criminal liability. A lot of the conduct we would see was clearly criminal -- sexual battery, home invasion, forcible rape. The problem is that few tenants were willing to report this sort of thing to police, because they feared (probably accurately) that the police would take no action. Again, from my experience, and that of my colleagues: The landlord is invariably of a higher social status. He owns property (by definition), he is usually white, is usually in his 50s, 60s, or 70s (my office had more than one harasser try to use the "Viagra defense"). The victim is often black, very poor, and under 30. Some of the victims in my cases have had criminal records, substance abuse problems, or mental health issues, making them even more vulnerable. The very vulnerability that makes them fair game for the landlord also makes it less likely that they will feel like they can call the police, and that the police will believe them. (One woman in a case I had called the police to report that her landlord was threatening to evict her unless she had oral sex with him. The police arrested HER when they discovered she had an outstanding traffic warrant. The landlord, meanwhile, persuaded the cops that she was just a bad tenant who was trying to get even with him for attempting to evict her. Guess what happened? He evicted her.)

This is a problem that has probably been underreported, at least compared to the sexual harassment at work, but it has similar roots: One participant has more power than the other and thinks that this power can be used to extort sexual services of some kind, while the other participant is at least partially locked into the bad situation; partially locked, because finding a new job or apartment is hard, time-consuming and involves real costs and losses. In the examples the Kos diary quoted the power imbalance is even greater as the tenants don't have the money to rent an open market apartment.

We need more study and discussion of this.