Female Renters Take on Predatory Landlords

By: - March 12, 2020 12:00 am

Women faced years of sexual harassment and retaliation at the hands of a property manager at this apartment building in Los Angeles. Poor women, especially women of color, are most likely to be the victims of housing-based sexual harassment. Damian Dovarganes / The Associated Press

Douglas Waterbury owned or managed dozens of rental properties in and around Oswego, New York, and for decades he allegedly used that power to demand sexual favors from financially strapped tenants and applicants who were desperate for a place to live.

Waterbury threatened women with eviction if they refused to engage in sexual acts with him, according to a civil lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2018. He groped them, showed up unannounced at their homes, and said he’d reduce or waive rent payments in exchange for sex. To retaliate against women who defied him, he refused to make needed repairs.

It’s a familiar story in many low-income communities: Poor women, especially women of color, are most likely to be the victims of housing-based sexual harassment. But many are reluctant to accuse landlords who wield tremendous power over their lives.

“There’s a level of shame that they feel, because they’re poor,” said Rigel Oliveri, a professor at the University of Missouri Law School and the author of a 2018 study on the problem. “They feel bad they don’t pay their rent. [Their attitude is] ‘I’m a bad tenant, this is what I have to put up with.’”

That may be changing.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) received 246 housing-related sexual harassment complaints, more than double the 103 complaints it received in 2017, according to the agency.

A recent report by the National Alliance for Fair Housing asserts that “increased scrutiny of sexual harassment in housing has led to an unprecedented number of cases against housing providers.” The report also notes that in 2018, the Justice Department filed six lawsuits alleging a broad “pattern or practice” of housing-based sexual harassment, more than in any previous year.

The #MeToo movement likely has contributed to the increase in complaints. But HUD, which is responsible for enforcing fair housing laws in both public and private housing, also credits a joint anti-harassment initiative it launched in 2018 with the Department of Justice. Among other goals, the effort aims to raise public awareness of the issue and make it easier for victims to come forward.

“Women told us they never knew they had a right to file a complaint,” Anna Maria Farías, HUD assistant secretary for the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, told Stateline in an interview.

As a child growing up in public housing, Farías witnessed a landlord sexually harass her mother. She says her boss, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, had a similar experience as a child, so he is adamant about using HUD’s power to crack down on offenders.

According to Farías, Carson told his staff, “Whenever you come across those cases, throw the book at them.” (Carson declined a Stateline request for an interview.)

Carson’s action on the issue contrasts with his relative inaction on racial discrimination cases. In a congressional hearing last week, Carson testified that segregation persists not because “there are George Wallace-type people standing in the doorway, saying, ‘You can’t come in here.’”

“People are segregated because they can only afford to live in certain places,” he said.

In his three-year tenure at HUD, Carson has initiated only three discrimination cases, two of which were race-based (one against Facebook and another against the city of Hesperia, California), far fewer than his predecessors.

Civil rights groups generally applaud HUD for its aggressive pursuit of sexual harassment claims. “It’s a good thing that they’re tackling sexual harassment,” said Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance. “It’s very critical. And it does make a huge difference.”

Still, Rice and others say HUD should be doing more to combat other forms of housing discrimination, especially racial discrimination.

“The question is, ‘Is HUD basically trying to pit protected classes against each other in order to justify not tackling race head-on?’” said Thomas Silverstein, who works on housing issues at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

‘Literally Life or Death’

Last August, Douglas Waterbury agreed to pay $850,000 in damages and civil penalties to resolve the Justice Department’s lawsuit and a separate suit by a group of private plaintiffs. The settlement also bars the former Oswego landlord from participating in the rental or management of residential properties.

Shannon O’Connor, Waterbury’s attorney, declined comment and said her client would not agree to an interview. “The decree speaks for itself,” she said.

Prompted in part by the Waterbury case, U.S. Rep. John Katko, a New York Republican who represents Oswego, last month introduced a bill that would require HUD to issue an annual sexual harassment report to Congress.

U.S. Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, a New Hampshire Democrat who is cosponsoring the legislation, said she was “shocked by the pervasiveness” of the problem.

“The landlord has such an influence in their lives, literally life or death,” Kuster said. “Especially if you’re living in the winter in upstate New York and you have no place to go.”

Oliveri of the University of Missouri Law School, who prosecuted sexual harassment cases as a Justice Department attorney from 2000 to 2005, said predatory landlords are “Harvey Weinstein for women who just need a place to live.”

In her 2018 survey of a hundred low-income women in Columbia, Missouri, Oliveri found that women who had trouble paying rent for a private apartment were the most likely to be sexually harassed by landlords, building managers and maintenance workers. Women who had a housing voucher or lived in public housing were less likely to be targeted.

Faced with the prospect of becoming homeless, many women comply, Oliveri said. Sometimes tenants who complain to the police are threatened with prostitution charges because they traded sex for a place to stay, she said.

“The vast majority of this conduct seems to be perpetuated by solo practitioners, landlords and managers,” Oliveri said. “They can fly under the radar. No one’s looking over their shoulder.”

Sandra Park, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, said tenants traditionally have fewer anti-harassment protections than employees do. In the workplace, Park said, most employers have policies that prohibit sexual harassment and clear procedures for filing complaints. That’s typically not the case with housing providers, she said.

“You’re never told who you could report to,” Park said. “That’s concerning when harassment in your home is often experienced in a more traumatic way because it is your home, your most private and hopefully sacred place.”

Little Fish?

Under the joint initiative, HUD and the Justice Department are sharing sexual harassment data and training programs for staff. HUD also has distributed a video that includes three women who’ve been sexually harassed by a landlord or property manager.

“It was like, you either do this or you’re on the streets,” one of the women says in the video. “People shouldn’t be treated like this because they need a place to live.”

Under federal law, HUD is supposed to administer and enforce the Fair Housing Act. If HUD finds that a landlord is violating fair housing laws, the agency can put his property into receivership, to prevent him from having contact with tenants.

“That’s when people realize we mean business,” Farías said. “There’s a price to pay.”

The Justice Department often takes on larger “pattern or practice” cases involving multiple women complaining about the same landlord, according to Robert Schwemm, a fair housing expert and professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law.

“The [Department of Justice] has done a pretty active job in the Trump administration bringing sexual harassment complaints,” Schwemm said.

Nevertheless, some critics say HUD should be doing more. Sara Pratt, a HUD attorney during the Obama administration, said that under Carson, HUD has avoided going after large, corporate landlords. Pratt said HUD in the Obama era focused on bigger cases, casting a wide net to identify multiple victims of sexual harassment.

“The pattern is not the same for HUD in the Trump administration,” Pratt said. “What you see from HUD now are individual investigations, individual cases and small settlements.”

But Farías said HUD “claims victory” with its initiative whenever a case is settled.

“Every victim’s case is important,” Farías said. “We’re equally proud of all of our settled cases because of the relief and justice our settlements provided.”

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Teresa Wiltz

Teresa Wiltz covers welfare, housing and social services for Stateline. Previously, she worked for the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.