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U.S. Attorney’s Office Hosts Roundtable on Sexual Harassment in Housing

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division recently hosted a roundtable for community organizations, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito announced.

The event included local law enforcement agencies, legal aid offices, fair housing organizations, shelters and transitional housing providers. Each organization was invited because they often work with New Jersey’s most vulnerable populations, who could also become victims of sexual harassment in housing.

“Sexual harassment in housing situations might not be as visible as harassment in the workplace, but can be just as egregious,” U.S. Attorney Carpenito said. “Landlords and superintendents using the power they have over tenants to extort sexual favors, or even commit assaults, is intolerable. We’re extremely proud that New Jersey is holding one of the first community discussions about how to combat the problem.”

In October 2017, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division announced the Sexual Harassment Initiative, an effort to combat sexual harassment in housing. The Civil Rights Division launched a pilot of the initiative in two jurisdictions—Washington, DC and western Virginia—where it is working with legal service providers and local law enforcement to raise awareness about this issue.

As part of the pilot, the Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia hosted a summit on November 9, 2017. The summit convened representatives from the Executive Office of the Mayor of the District of Columbia, Metropolitan Police Department, Office of Human Rights (Washington, D.C.), Office of the Tenant Advocate (Washington, D.C.), Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Office of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey is the first office outside of the Sexual Harassment Initiative’s pilot program to host a roundtable on these issues. The office is collaborating with the Civil Rights Division to spread the word about options to help victims experiencing sexual harassment. Our community organizations, such as local law enforcement, legal aid offices, fair housing organizations, shelters and transitional housing providers can identify the misconduct and recommend that victims report sexual harassment to the Civil Rights Division.

The Department of Justice, through the U.S. Attorney’s Offices and the Civil Rights Division, enforces the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by the Act.

While most people are familiar with the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, harassment also occurs in the housing context, and the Fair Housing Act prohibits it. Sexual harassment by landlords, property managers, maintenance workers, and others with power over housing often affects the most vulnerable populations – single mothers, women who are financially unstable, and women who have suffered sexual violence in their past. And these women often do not know where to turn for help.

The Justice Department brings cases each year involving egregious conduct, including allegations that defendants have exposed themselves sexually to current or prospective tenants, requested sexual favors in exchange for reduced rents or making necessary repairs, made unrelenting and unwanted sexual advances to tenants, and evicted tenants who resisted their sexual overtures.

In 2017, the Justice Department recovered for harassment victims more than $1 million in damages. Many instances of sexual harassment in housing continue to go unreported. The Justice Department’s investigations frequently uncover sexual harassment that has been ongoing for years or decades and identify numerous victims who never reported the conduct to federal authorities.

In remarks at the “Conversation with the Women of America” event in Washington, D.C., Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand addressed the issue:

“We want women – and men – to know that if this happens to them, there is someone they can call,” Associate Attorney General Brand said. “No one should have to choose between sexual abuse and losing the roof over her head.”

Not only should victims of sexual harassment be aware of the Justice Department’s enforcement efforts, but people or organizations they may tell about the sexual harassment should also be aware where to refer them to report the misconduct. Local police departments or legal aid offices may be able to help survivors, if the behavior is a crime or if there is an imminent eviction. Therefore, organizations should also recommend that the victim report the harassment to the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The Justice Department’s initiative seeks to identify barriers to reporting sexual harassment in housing, increase awareness of its enforcement efforts – both among victims and those they may report to – and collaborate with federal, state, and local partners to increase reporting and help women quickly and easily connect with federal resources. The Department encourages anyone who has experienced sexual harassment in housing, or knows someone who has, to contact the Division by calling (844) 380-6178 or emailing: fairhousing@usdoj.gov (link sends e-mail).

Individuals who believe they may have been victims of discrimination may also file a complaint with the U.S. Attorney’s Office at: http://www.justice.gov/usao-nj/civil-rights-enforcement/complaint or may call the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Civil Rights Complaint Hotline at (855) 281-3339.