Justice Department Cracking Down on Sexual Harassment in Housing

(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

The Justice Department announced Thursday a nationwide initiative to combat sexual harassment in housing, including an interagency task force between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and DoJ, an outreach toolkit, and a public awareness campaign.

DoJ announced Wednesday that it had filed a lawsuit against Douglas S. Waterbury, a residential property owner and landlord in the Oswego, N.Y., area, alleging that he “has sexually harassed numerous women who have lived in or inquired about the defendants’ residential rental properties” since 1990.

That’s included “demanding or pressuring female tenants and potential tenants to engage in sex acts with him in order to obtain or keep rental housing; subjecting female tenants and potential tenants to unwelcome sexual contact and groping; offering to grant tangible housing benefits, such as reduced rent or deposit payments, in exchange for sex acts; refusing needed maintenance services or otherwise taking adverse housing actions against female tenants who refused his harassment; and making unwelcome sexual comments and advances,” the DoJ said, calling the landlord’s conduct “egregious, ranging from demands to exchange sex for rent to unwanted sexual encounters.”

“Subjecting tenants and those looking for housing to harassment and demands for sex is unacceptable,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Civil Rights Division. “Combating sexual harassment in housing is among the Department’s top priorities.”

The anti-harassment campaign stems from pilot programs launched last fall in D.C. and western Virginia, which “sought to increase the department’s efforts to protect women from harassment by landlords, property managers, maintenance workers, security guards, and other employees and representatives of rental property owners.”

Parts of the program were also tested in New Jersey, the Central District of California, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Michigan.

The DoJ received an increase in harassment reports in the tested jurisdictions, and thus is taking the major components, including a social media campaign, nationwide.

During remarks Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, Attorney General Jeff Sessions noted that “one thing that is not fully appreciated is that the FHA empowers us to go after landlords, property managers, maintenance workers, and others who engage in a pattern of sexual harassment against their tenants.”

“And this is a serious problem.  We’ve seen many cases—especially in public housing—where a landlord will exploit vulnerable women and threaten them with eviction unless they provide him with sexual favors,” he said. “We’re not going to tolerate that.”

“Too many victims in these situations don’t realize that our department can help them,” he added.

Sessions said that the DoJ has been “fulfilling that duty” to prosecute housing discrimination “in cases all across America.”

“Recently, a mixed-race couple in Port Richey, Florida woke up to a burning cross on their front lawn.  This couple had just moved to the neighborhood and had been met with racial slurs and even physical assault. Thanks to the FHA, in August we put the three men responsible right where they belong—in the slammer,” he said.

“There was a Muslim family in Tampa that was looking to buy a house. As they were touring one home that they liked, a man walked in and said that they weren’t welcome and that he was going to burn the house down. As a result, they didn’t move in. A little over a month ago, that man pled guilty to a hate crime.”