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The Justice Department is demanding that federal prosecutors go after the landlords accused of coercing their impoverished tenants to trade sex for rent when they’re unable to make payments during a global pandemic.
“This behavior is not tolerated in normal times, and certainly will not be tolerated now,” Attorney General William Barr wrote in a memo to attorneys Thursday, first reported by CBS News.
Millions of Americans failed to make even a portion of their rent this month during the staggering job loss spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. But those tenants are supposed to be kept safe from their landlords’ retaliation, with a patchwork of eviction moratoriums and watchful attorneys preventing tenants from ultimately becoming homeless.
Still, a handful of landlords are trying to illegally evict those vulnerable tenants. And in certain cases, they’re succeeding.
Now, the Justice Department is concerned that tenants needing to defer rent will become victims of sexual harassment as some landlords demand “acts of unwelcome sexual conduct” when they cannot pay, according to Thursday’s memo.
Barr didn’t specify in his memo whether the Justice Department has any active investigations relating to conduct initiated during the coronavirus pandemic. But the department has already filed two lawsuits this year relating to sexual harassment in housing. In January, one Los Angeles property manager was accused of coming into tenants’ apartments to harass them and demand sexual acts to compensate for unpaid rent. And this month, a Kentucky landlord was accused of entering his tenant’s home unannounced, assaulting her, and threatening to evict her when he learned she wanted to contact law enforcement.
“Such behavior is despicable, and it is illegal,” Barr wrote in Thursday’s memo.
But some landlords aren’t getting the message. Earlier this month, Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, wrote in a Medium post that her office had “an increase in reports of landlords on multiple islands pressuring “arrangements” and sexual conduct from women unable to pay rent due to lost income from the COVID-19 crisis.” She later told CBS News that her office had actually been receiving calls from panicked women all around the country — not just in Hawaii — because victims weren’t sure where to turn.
“Sexual predation by landlords, not just domestic violence, makes it hard for women to shelter-in-place,” she wrote in the Medium post.
These cases are often greatly under-reported — in part because women don’t know where to seek help, or fear their landlords’ reaction — but their prevalence was increasing slightly even before the pandemic, according to the National Fair Housing Alliance. Because landlords often target low-income women on the edge of homelessness, attorneys and advocates are now on high alert for any pandemic-related allegations.
Since the Department of Justice announced its “Sexual Harassment in Housing Intitiative” in 2017, attorneys have has aggressively pursued landlords and property managers accused of sexual harassment or quid pro quo agreements. The Department of Justice opened a record number of sexual harassment investigations in 2018 and initiated six related lawsuits — more than any prior year.
Tenants who believe they’ve experienced harassment from a landlord, property manager, or repair person can contact their local fair housing agency or legal aid office, or they can file a complaint online directly with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Cover: Getty Images