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Sexual Harassment in Housing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

“One’s home is a place of privacy, security, and refuge (or should be), and harassment that occurs in or around one’s home can be far more intrusive, violative and threatening than harassment in the more public environment of one’s work place.” 81 Fed. Reg. at 63,055.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has devastated the economy and impacted the ability of many people to manage timely rent payments. Disturbingly, some housing providers have been exploiting the crisis and resulting housing insecurity to sexually harass tenants. Such predatory practices violate the Fair Housing Act (FHA).

The FHA and its implementing regulations protect tenants and housing applicants from harassing conduct that is based upon one’s membership in a protected class, including sex. Sexual harassment does not require physical contact, and includes written, verbal and other unwanted and unwelcome conduct.

Sexual harassment claims under the FHA have relied primarily on two theories: quid pro quo harassment and hostile environment harassment. 

Quid pro quo (“this for that”) harassment refers to an unwelcome request or demand to engage in sexual conduct where submission to the request or demand, either explicitly or implicitly, is made a condition of housing or housing-related services. An unwelcome request or demand may constitute quid pro quo harassment even if a person acquiesces to that request or demand. Examples include:

  • Requesting rent to be paid in sexual favors instead of money.

  • Threatening to evict a tenant or report them to immigration unless sexual favors are given.

  • Demanding elicit photos or sexual favors as a condition of repairs.

Hostile environment harassment describes harassment that is severe and pervasive enough that it alters the terms or conditions of tenancy and results in an environment that is intimidating, hostile, offensive, or otherwise significantly less desirable. Hostile environment harassment does not require a change in the economic benefits, terms, or conditions of the housing or housing-related services. Examples include:

  • Unwanted sexual advances, teasing or jokes.

  • Unwanted touching, or attempted assault or rape.

  • Collecting rent or making unwanted visits late at night.

Whether hostile environment harassment exists depends upon “the totality of the circumstances.” Factors to be considered include, but are not limited to, the nature of the conduct; the context in which the incident(s) occurred; the severity, scope, frequency, duration, and location of the conduct; and the relationships of the persons involved. Physical or psychological harm is not required to prove hostile environment harassment, but evidence of such harm may be relevant in determining if a hostile environment exists (and for purposes of proving damages). The standard is that of “a reasonable person in the aggrieved person’s position.”

If you believe you have been sexual harassed, remember you are not alone. Seek help immediately. The following steps are advised:

  • If safe to do so, clearly and unequivocally tell the person harassing you to stop. Let the harasser know that your next step will be to file a complaint.

  • Report the harasser’s behavior to his or her supervisor, to the property management company and/or to the owner of the property.

  • Document the harassment in a log. Keep track of the dates, times, locations and details of incidents as they occur. Note any witnesses. Keep copies of or photograph offensive material or property damage. Save harassing emails, letters, notices, texts or voicemails.

  • If the harassment reaches the level of a criminal act (e.g. sexual assault, destruction of property, breaking and entering, theft), file a police report.

  • See the assistance of a fair housing attorney or organization and/or file an administrative complaint with a fair housing enforcement agency like the Department of Housing and Urban Development or, in California, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

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