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Cyrus Dugger

Follow Up To: It’s Legal to Sexually Harass Your Tenants!

To view the extensive discussion on the cross-post at Daily Kos, click here.

* This post is submitted on behalf of Professor of Law Rigel Oliveri. Professor Oliveri co-wrote the law review article on which my original post "Notice to Sexually Predatory Landlords: It's Legal to Sexually Harass Your Tenants!" was primarily based. Professor Oliveri's article "A New Look At Sexual Harassment Under the Fair Housing Act: The Forgotten Role of 3604(c)," is accessible through lexisnexis or westlaw by way of the following citiation 2002 Wisc. L. Rev. 771.

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 woman in a case I had actually went to the Housing Authority and filed a complaint. The HA told her they would permit her to move, but they couldn't give her assistance in paying the new security deposit or utility hook-up fees. Because the woman couldn't come up with the $600 that she needed to move, she stayed in the house for ten months. During that time the landlord entered her home and urinated on her belongings, repeatedly asked her to have sex with him and strip for him. When winter came, she had no heat. He refused to fix the furnace unless she had sex with him. She refused, he locked her out, and she ended up living in a car with her little girl. No action was taken against the landlord until after we won a jury verdict against him in federal court. In fact, he continued to rent to and harass other Section 8 recipients.

I think the correlation is obvious: landlord sexual harassment is directly related to the lack of affordable housing opportunities for low-income women with children. When women have options, they do not have to remain in harassing situations. Landlords know these women lack options, and use that to their advantage.

I'd also like to highlight the point Cyrus made earlier, that SERIOUS cases of sexual harassment ARE addressable by state and federal fair housing laws. And often these cases do involve very serious conduct. DOJ has had cases where the landlord masturbated and ejaculated in front of his tenant, grabbed their breasts, entered their bedrooms while they were sleeping, made lewd comments to young children, and, in the extreme, committed forcible rape. Then of course there is the quid pro quo stuff -- demanding intercourse and/or oral sex and evicting women who don't comply, demanding that a woman strip before he will rent to them, etc. All of this conduct will be reached by civil rights laws. It is when the harassment is less severe or pervasive that the gaps in the law appear. These gaps are problematic -- for all of the reasons people have been talking about in the comments to the diary -- but they only occur in "borderline" cases.

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.)

Many of these women are living so close to the edge of homelessness (and caring for young children) that the very real fear that they will get kicked out of their housing if they say anything is often strong enough to keep them silent. By the time they get out of the situation, it may be too late to complain. The statute of limitations has run, police aren't interested in processing a 16-month old sexual battery complaint, etc.

As satifying as it would be if more of these guys were put in jail, I do think that the civil remedy can be a good thing if it results in the victims getting some $$ so they CAN get decent housing, and if the landlord gets barred from the business. And the more publicity that these cases get the better, so that victims realize they are not alone and landlords realize they can't get away with this sort of thing. Anyone can bring these cases, it doesn't have to be DOJ. (In fact, for a variety of reasons, DOJ brings relatively few cases.) There is a private right of action under federal and most state civil rights laws, plus fee-shifting provisions. HUD and most state civil rights agencies will process individual complaints free of charge. And there are lots of great fair housing groups out there who can handle complaints as well.

Sorry to go on for so long. I obviously feel very passionately about this issue. Thanks Cyrus, for publicizing it. I am so happy to see that people are reading and commenting.

- Professor Rigel Oliveri

If you or your organization is interested in learning more about or working on these types of civil justice issues, please feel free to contact me at
Cyrus Dugger
Senior Fellow in Civil Justice
Drum Major Institute for Public Policy

Cyrus Dugger: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 3:23 PM, Aug 08, 2006 in Civil Justice
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