At first, we thought it was just the “casting couch,” where creepy casting directors or producers would ask aspiring actors for sexual favors in exchange for granting them a coveted role in a movie or TV show.
But sexual harassment isn’t limited to Hollywood, as we now know. It can happen whenever there’s an imbalance of power, such as in an employer-employee relationship … or a landlord-tenant one.
Tenants being sexually harassed by their landlord happens, but it’s difficult to know just how pervasive the situation is.
“It is difficult to get precise numbers on the frequency of housing-related sexual harassment—primarily because many (if not most) victims never file formal complaints with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal agency charged with enforcing the nation’s anti-discrimination housing laws,” says Candice Blain, a sexual assault survivor and founder of Blain LLC, an Atlanta, GA, law firm specializing in representing victims of gender-related issues.
Even with most people not reporting sexual harassment, Blain pointed out that HUD’s most recent annual report shows that there were 800 sex discrimination/sexual harassment complaints filed in 2016 in the U.S. And if 800 cases were filed, you can safely assume that many more incidents than that occurred.
Understand when sexual harassment happens
There are two types of sexual harassment, both of which are against the law. “Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” says Beth Robinson, an attorney with Fortis Law Partners in Denver, CO.
“In practice, it is often either quid pro quo or hostile environment. Quid pro quo is offering special treatment for submission to sexual conduct,” she says. For example, “It is illegal for a housing provider to ask for sexual favors to avoid eviction or in exchange for free rent, repairs, or excused late payments or fees,” says Alex Umansky, partner of the law office of Yuriy Moshes, P.C. in Brooklyn, NY.
“Hostile environment is when the sexual conduct makes the victim so uncomfortable that it impacts his or her living conditions,” says Robinson. “Examples of hostile environment include when a landlord enters a unit without permission, makes unwanted sexual advances or comments, touches the tenant, or threatens to evict the tenant if the tenant turns down the landlord’s sexual advances,” says Umansky.
The Fair Housing Act makes sexual harassment unlawful in all states. Jon Street, a partner with the Employment & Consumer Law Group in Nashville, TN, further explains: “The Fair Housing Act was enacted by Congress in order to ensure folks are not discriminated against when they are renting, buying, or securing financing for any housing. Sexual harassment by a landlord against a tenant, and sometimes even a person living with the tenant, is prohibited under the Act.”
Report sexual harassment if it happens to you
Many people never report sexual harassment because they don’t know how. Robinson explains what to do. “I recommend they file a claim with their state agency. If the renter has been harmed by the harassment (i.e. if they have been required to move and incurred costs or just had a lot of personal stress and anxiety), they may be entitled to damages.”
If you are in danger (or perceive that you are), don’t mess around—call for help. “If the landlord enters the apartment without permission or engages in unwanted touching, the tenant should immediately call 911,” says Phillip Maltin of Raines Feldman, LLP, in Los Angeles, CA.
Whenever you believe you are being sexually harassed, go to the police, suggests Scott Behren of the Behren Law Firm in Weston, FL. “File a police report, and you can seek a restraining order if you are in fear the person will hurt you,” he says.
Leave the rental unit
Even if you still have time left on your lease, if you are being sexually harassed, it might be in your best interest to leave as soon as possible. “Even in circumstances where a victim of sexual harassment is not evicted, that tenant has the right to vacate the housing and bring a claim for constructive eviction arising out of the sexual harassment,” says Umansky.
“To establish constructive eviction, a tenant need not prove physical expulsion, but must prove sexually harassing acts by the landlord that substantially and materially deprive the tenant of the beneficial use and enjoyment of the premises,” he says.
Win a sexual harassment lawsuit
You can win a case against a discriminatory landlord. Case in point, this one regarding quid pro quo harassment: “An Ohio woman won a judgment against her landlord after he asked her to pose for nude pictures (she refused), offered her money for sex (which she also refused), and evicted her,” says Maltin.
But to win, you need to take the right steps. “I think a tenant needs to find a lawyer or use a legal aid service,” says Robinson. And Maltin explains that you might not need to pay anything [to a lawyer] unless you win a judgment. “Private lawyers who specialize in this area may represent a tenant at no cost (except for a fee that the attorney will receive if the tenant receives a cash settlement from the landlord).
“My advice is to document as much as you can. Renters can absolutely win this fight if they document the situation well and are prepared to present their case in a compelling way,” says Maltin.
Not everyone wins
Not everyone who brings a case wins, however. Maltin explains: “A woman in Illinois lost her hostile environment housing harassment claim, even though the landlord once put his hand on her knee, once kissed her until she pushed him away, and once—three weeks later—jumped at her from behind some bushes but did not touch her. The court said these events may have been unpleasant but that they were neither ‘severe nor pervasive.’”
Jon Street offers additional advice to help you win your case: “Before you file a lawsuit, you must file a complaint with your state housing agency and let them perform their investigation. Failure to go through the administrative agency first could lead to the state claims being dismissed.”
Many people don’t report sexual harassment because they don’t know how to prove it happened. Behren suggests some ways you can prove your case:
- Set up surveillance video.
- Call in witnesses who have seen the harassing behavior.
- Create a paper trail by documenting and reporting to police or your local fair housing organization each time you’re sexually harassed.
“If you do nothing about the sexual harassment, letting it go on and then finally saying something later, it makes it more difficult to win a lawsuit,” says Behren.
The bottom line
You don’t have to put up with sexual harassment. Get out of the situation and report it. When you let sexual harassment go, the harasser has won. “Reporting it is how it ends,” says Robinson. “Tenants must remember that it is never just them.”
Do you have a rental story? Please share in the comments.
Laura's a California native who relocated to Atlanta with her husband to be a SAHM of 3. She's now a blog-writing, dog-loving, tennis-playing landlord, whose work can be found on Trulia, Landlordology, Care.com, How Money Walks, Overstock.com and more.