Notice to Sexually Predatory Landlords - It's Legal to Sexually Harass Your Tenants

Imagine an [18 year old] single woman of limited means living with her two children in an apartment complex. The resident manager would like to go out with her or, to put it less euphemistically, would like to have a sexual relationship with her. Initially, he approaches the matter subtly by complimenting the woman on her appearance and offering to do special maintenance favors for her. Eventually, he asks her out. When she refuses, he becomes verbally hostile, calling her a "tease" and a "bitch." Thereafter, he threatens to evict her unless she has sex with him. The threat is not carried out, but the manager is now unpleasant in his exchanges with the tenant. She tries to avoid seeing him around the apartment complex, but when he comes to her unit to collect the rent, he often makes crude or sexually suggestive remarks such as "you could make this pay day so much nicer for both of us."

Do the nation's fair housing laws prohibit any or all of what the manager has done in this situation?  

To date, the courts have generally answered "no."

- Robert G. Schwemm & Rigel C. Oliveri, Article: A New Look at Sexual Harassment under the Fair Housing Act  

An incredibly underappreciated problem that women face across the country is sexual harassment by their landlords.  

Women are technically protected by the Fair Housing Act of 1968 from the creation of a "hostile environment" that functions to alter the terms and conditions of their housing.  

The current problem is that if a landlord merely sexually harasses a tenant without taking any retaliatory action against them for their refusal of his advances, the standard for a violation is incredibly high. In contrast, claims of retaliation for refusals of advances are much easier to win, but this type of claim requires evidence of a concrete retaliatory action. Ironically, for the "career sexual harasser" - who would probably like to keep the targets of their harassment on their property - they may not mind this arrangement since they may never intend to evict the tenant.

Unfortunately, it appears that landlord is safe if he molests his tenant, as long as he does not do it too often.  Arguably, based on the case law, if a landlord molests a female tenant in her first week of occupancy and then leaves her alone for the rest of her lease, he will likely avoid liability.The standard is so low, that he could arguably molest his tenant once every year, because it might not be considered "frequent" enough.  

In the words of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals "[t]hough sporadic behavior, if sufficiently abusive, may support a [discrimination] claim, success often requires repetitive misconduct." - Chalmers v. Quaker Oats Co., 61 F.3d 1340, 1345 (7th Cir. 1995).

And yet, the level of "abuse" the courts tolerate seems immense. A look at a few sample cases makes the point more clearly.

For example, in one case:

"[The landlord on] one occasion put his hand on the plaintiff's leg and kissed her until she pushed him away. Three weeks later, the defendant lurched at the plaintiff from behind some bushes and unsuccessfully tried to grab her." Saxton v. American Tel. & Tel. Co, 10 F.3d 526 (7th Cir. 1993)

The court found that this conduct did not qualify as a violation of federal fair housing law.

In another:

"[The landlord asked] the plaintiff for dates on repeated occasions, placed signs which read "I love you" in her work area, and twice attempted to kiss her. - Weiss v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Chicago, 990 F.2d 333 (7th Cir. 1993)

Here again, a landlord's behavior is not considered a violation of federal fair housing law.:

In yet another still:

"The plaintiffs were a married couple who were evicted from their apartment allegedly because Mrs. Shellhammer refused her landlord's requests to pose for nude photographs and to have sex with him."- A New Look at Sexual Harassment  

Had the landlord allowed the couple to continue living in his rental complex,  this too would not have been a violation of federal fair housing law.

In a final example:

"A single mother who was in the process of moving her mobile home into the defendant's trailer park when he asked her out socially on three different occasions. After she had moved in and made clear to him that she did not want to go out with him, a series of disputes arose between them, which resulted in his threatening to evict her and her ultimate decision to move out."- A New Look at Sexual Harassment

This landlord's behavior, according to the court, is not in violation of federal fair housing law.  

Ironically, this blog post could be seen as free legal advice for "career sexual harassing landlords." Indeed, the title satirically alludes to this fact. However, my hope is that instead this post draws attention to this issue such that it will eventually translate into the passage of stronger fair housing laws.  

Although federal legislation can be passed to address this harassment loophole, another effective approach is the passage of state and local fair housing law. Both states and cities can and do have their own fair housing law, which may be more comprehensive than federal law under the fair housing act.  

For example, New York City explicitly protects people from discrimination based on sexual orientation, while the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 does not.  

Be aware that your state or local government may have passed more stringent laws, and if they have not, please support efforts to do so. It's important that tenants know and exercise their rights.

As a last point, in the case upon which the introductory hypothetical was based, the court states:

"The problem with Brown's complaint is that although DiCenso may have harassed her, he did so only once - DiCenso's comments vaguely invited Brown to exchange sex for rent, and while Dicenso caressed Brown's arm and back, he did not touch an intimate body part, and he did not threaten Brown with any physical harm.

This alone did not create an objectively hostile environment."

One would think that in 2006 we had come further than permitting this type of behavior

- even "just once."

If you have been a victim of housing or employment discrimination please contact:  

The New York City Human Rights Commission
The New York State Division of Human Rights
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

*This post is obviously focused on female tenants and male landlords. Obviously, female landlords may also harass male tenants. In addition, if people are interested in the same-sex jurisprudence, I can do the research and let you know.

If you or your organization is interested in learning more about or working on these types of civil justice issues, please feel free to contact me at

Cyrus Dugger
Senior Fellow in Civil Justice
Drum Major Institute for Public Policy

Tags: civil justice system, housing (all tags)



Re: Notice to Sexually Predatory Landlords

I live in NYC (could you tell?) and this is just creepy.

by Our Gal in Brooklyn 2006-08-03 08:57AM | 0 recs
Re: Sexual Harassment in Housing

Interesting, but not the complete story.  Courts have, in fact, found sexual harassment to be violate the Fair Housing Act, if not via 3604(c), then through the retaliatory provisions of 3617.  Furthermore, HUD, which enforces fair housing laws, and every Fair Housing group in the country (as well as every fair housing attorney in the country), generally regards sexual harassment as a violation of the Fair Housing Act.  Some states, such as California, also have explicit prohibitions on sexual harassment in their statutes.

In short, if you're a victim of sexual harassment in housing, you will not be turned away by any enforcement agency/attorney.  Please contact your local Fair Housing agency, HUD or find an attorney to assist you.

by Jim Treglio 2006-08-03 01:47PM | 0 recs
Re: Notice to Sexually Predatory Landlords - It's

Hi thanks for your comment,

I think that everybody should ALWAYS report any inappropriate sexual comments to them. Just the action of reporting it might serve as a catalyst for it to stop (it may make the aggressor more hostile - but the flip side is that if this makes them retaliate they are easier to bust.)

The purpose of my post was to draw additional attention to the problem that the law (as interpreted by most judges as opposed to necessarily its plain textual meaning) does not really protect women from behavior that is very horrible.

I don't think that we disagree. In my post I state that sexual harassment IS illegal under the FHA. The problem is that if there is no retaliation under 3617, or if the harassment cannot be proven to be quid pro quo - i.e. the landlord takes some specific action because there offer is denied, you can only rely on a hostile environment claim - and this claim is very hard to make anbd allows a lot of really horrible conduct before kicking in.

YES, there is increasing movement to use 3604(c) - we need to support it - but it is a claim that that has not been made a lot by advocates (not the court's fault), and has as of 2002, never been upheld as an independent basis for relief with its own unique standards separate from another provision of 3604 (the court's fault). Perhaps since 2002 some courts have, but is not widespread - we NEED to make it more so but it's not being made right now. There is comprehensive law review on the lack of use of 3604(c),

Robert G. Schwemm & Rigel C. Oliveri, A New Look at Sexual Harassment Under the Fair Housing Act: The Forgotten Role of Section 3604(c) 2002 Wisc. L. Rev. 771 (2002)

and why exactly as you argue, it SHOULD be interpreted to prohibit this conduct - your point is great - and in my post I forgot to advocate that judges take just that route. If you have found any cases that solely rely on 3604(c) without also finding under another 3604 provision and using this standards please send it my way... maybe a judge read the article...and changed there ways in the last couple of years.

So judges read

Robert G. Schwemm & Rigel C. Oliveri, A New Look at Sexual Harassment Under the Fair Housing Act: The Forgotten Role of Section 3604(c) 2002 Wisc. L. Rev. 771 (2002)

And get with the program.

Sorry that this comment is super technical...............


by Cyrus Dugger 2006-08-04 07:46AM | 0 recs
Re: Notice to Sexually Predatory Landlords

Hey, no problem.  I'm a fair housing attorney in California by the way.  Hopefully, we'll have some positive case law coming soon.  

by Jim Treglio 2006-08-04 10:51AM | 0 recs
Re: Notice to Sexually Predatory Landlords

Great.... also let me know if any access to justice issues come across your desk.


by Cyrus Dugger 2006-08-04 12:38PM | 0 recs
Re: Notice to Sexually Predatory Landlords

My daughter and I were the successful plaintiffs in a federal (9th Circuit) Fair Housing suit stemming from sexual harassment and discrimination that went to jury trial 2 years ago. We were very fortunate to have been represented by Legal Aid Services of Oregon (LASO) and the Oregon Law Center (OLC). It was a pretty big deal around here.

After escaping an abusive relationship, I had just enough money to rent a room in a local boarding house for my 2 kids and I. Certainly not the ideal, but it was all I could afford at the time. I figured we'd stay there while I found work and got back on my feet - a few months at the most. As a new TANF applicant, I was required to attend diversion activities, and so my kids - my 15 year old daughter and 7 year old son - came home from school before I did.

From the very first day, my daughter was verbally harassed and intimidated by several of the middle-aged men who also lived there. I complained loudly and often to the manager, who just said he'd talk to the owner about it.

Because I complained, the abuse got worse and more frequent. These men would "accidentally" bump into my daughter while passing in the hall - "inadvertently" touching her breasts or backside. I had to escort her to the (shared) bathrooms or kitchen.

I was told repeatedly I could find housing elsewhere if I didn't like it. But without a damage deposit and first/last month's rent (not to mention proof that my income was 4x the rent) there wasn't anything else. They won't even give you the DV money to move unless you can prove you can pay subsequent rent - fair enough I guess - but when the TANF grant is $500 and even a one BR apt goes for at least $600, you're still screwed.

We were at the boarding house for only a month - though it seems like forever - and it all ended one night when one of the men - obviously intoxicated - began to scream obscenities and insults at us. It escalated and ended with him grabbing my daughter and knocking her down. She freaked and hit him. He - a 45 yr old man - called the cops and claimed my 15 yr old daughter had assaulted him!

I took the kids and fled. I couldn't justify putting them in danger like that - even if it meant we were living in our car. We ended up staying on a "friend's" couch for the next 3 months - until I could no longer fend off HIS advances.

I only went to Legal Aid to fight the eviction (Yes, they then tried to evict me!) from the boarding house - I knew with that on my record it'd be even harder to find housing. I was so very fortunate to find some fabulous attys at LASO and the OLC who were willing to take a chance on a Fair Housing suit.

I can't say enough about the fine, dedicated, and talented people in Legal Aid (and all its affiliates) here in Oregon. We didn't get a lot of $ from our settlement, but the fact that they believed me AND stood up for us literally turned our lives around. I was pretty beat down after all this happened, and they showed me that there is some justice in this world.

I'm going to school now (or as long as the new TANF regs will let me) to upgrade my skills so I can hopefully work in indigent defense in some capacity. I hope to one day specialize in legal investigation.

Thanks for bringing this issue out in the open. And thanks, especially, to all those who advocate for and represent the indigent. I know it can sometimes be a thankless job, but you are needed, and my family will be forever grateful.

by Gebbey 2006-08-08 04:22PM | 0 recs


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