Some landlords are taking advantage of the coronavirus outbreak, soliciting sexual favors instead of rent payments from economically vulnerable tenants, advocates say.
Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, said her office had received more reports of landlords sexually harassing their tenants in the past two weeks than in the past two weeks. two years since she started working there, including cases of landlords offering to move in with tenants and sending them sexually explicit photos after raising concerns about the April rent payment.
While the number of cases was not necessarily astronomical – the commission received 10 reports from nine owners – Jabola-Carolus said they were particularly notable given that such cases are “vastly underreported.”
“Homeowner coercion has always been a reality, but we’ve never seen anything like it,” said Jabola-Carolus. “The coronavirus is creating the perfect conditions for homeowners who want to do this because not only are people being instructed to stay home, but the virus has added to economic stress with people losing their jobs, especially in Hawaii,” which is motivated by tourism. “
Around 5 million more people filed for unemployment for the first time last week, bringing the total of unemployed Americans to nearly 22 million. While some states have adopted moratoriums on evictions and rents, experts warn those policies may not be enough to keep low- and middle-income tenants in their homes. Only 69% of tenants had paid their monthly rent by April 5, compared to 81% the previous month, according to the National Council for Multifamily Housing.
Advocates like Renee Williams, a senior lawyer with the National Housing Law Project, suspect that, as tenants continue to struggle economically, there will be increased reports of sexual harassment by landlords in the months to come.
“Landlords have all the weight in the landlord-tenant relationship and in these types of situations, they particularly prey on women who are vulnerable, who are housing insecure, who have bad credit, or who don’t. have nowhere to go, ”Williams said. “We have already seen that the pandemic exacerbates many systemic problems and that sexual harassment targeted at tenants by landlords is likely to be one of those problems.”
Tenants have recourse
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to uproot everyday life, there may be further confusion over where tenants at risk of such harassment can go with their demands, but advocates say tenants have a remedy.
“Under federal Fair Housing Act, sexual harassment by landlords is illegal,” said Sandra Park, senior lawyer at the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberty Union. “Many states also have laws that prohibit sexual harassment and discrimination.”
Tenants experiencing harassment can file a report with the Department of Justice, which oversees an initiative to reduce sexual harassment in housing and filed several lawsuits against owners in recent years.
“The DOJ is aware of these allegations and is working through its Civil Rights Division to investigate and prosecute landlords and other housing providers who engage in sexual harassment of tenants,” a spokesperson wrote. of the DOJ in an e-mailed statement.
Park also suggested that tenants seek help from local legal and social services, including human rights commissions.
“Many courts are closed right now, but getting involved with these organizations and having a lawyer on their part to call homeowners could warn homeowners that their behavior is unacceptable,” Park said.
Yet Park and other advocates recognize that the most vulnerable women – especially women of color and immigrant and undocumented women – will not feel comfortable reporting or suing their victims. owners and often when they do, they are often fired.
“I don’t think most of the women who have submitted reports will continue to act because they are so vulnerable,” Jabola-Carolus said.
That’s why she created a guide for those whose owners can lobby them to a sexual arrangement.
“We want homeowners to know that we are watching them and that the women who are struggling with this issue are not alone,” said Jabola-Carolus. “It really is the women who hold every community right now. We are the majority of healthcare, senior care, and child care workers and the coronavirus underscores the silence of women’s oppression in the United States, I couldn’t even envision a more sexist crisis. “
Stay-at-home orders can exacerbate harassment
Compared to sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual harassment in housing has received much less attention, according to Park, whose first case with the ACLU was in the name of an Alabama woman whose manager real estate tried to repeatedly coerced her into having sex with him and tried to increase her rent when she refused. Although limited, research on sexual harassment in housing shows how widespread the problem is. According to a Pilot study 2018 led by Rigel Oliveri of the University of Missouri Law School, 10 percent of low-income women in Columbia, Missouri, had experienced significant sexual harassment from landlords.
Although there are federal and state laws prohibiting sexual harassment in housing, many advocates are calling on housing providers and public housing authorities that do not yet have these policies to institute them.
Isa Woldeguiorguis, Executive Director of the Center for Hope and Healing, also urges people not to overlook the power to register with neighbors during this time, as staying home can not only exacerbate sexual harassment, but also lead to increased sexual harassment. other forms of violence and abuse.
“Reach out in any way you can. We may not be able to be physically there, but we can call or walk near them,” Woldeguiorguis said. “The survivors need us to remember.”