Combating Sexual Harassment in Housing Requires Prioritizing the Safety of Survivors

Renewed attention on sexual harassment in housing has been welcome, but safety is still financially out of reach for many.

By Kate Scott and Aastha Uprety
June 24, 2019

Earlier this year, the ERC received an intake from women living in a rural part of our service area who were being sexually harassed by their landlord. The harassment came in the form of unsolicited and unwanted requests for sexual favors that turned into threats to evict once denied.

When faced with a situation like this, many of us would first choose to move immediately. However, this strategy proved challenging to our clients for two main reasons. First, their housing options were extremely limited by their low incomes. Second, new landlords required a reference from their current landlord—the one that was threatening eviction because they wouldn’t submit to his demands for sexual favors. With few other options for housing, these women were stuck in a harrowing situation.

The fact that our clients weren’t physically safe made it challenging to enforce their fair housing rights. Our primary focus became finding immediate legal resources to prevent the eviction, which was tough because our clients were located in an underserved, rural area. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have both recently launched initiatives designed to stamp out sexual harassment in housing, but these initiatives do not address the immediate harm victims of sexual harassment in housing face. Shuffling through the limited options to help these women, we truly understood that there are few solutions out there to help victims of sexual harassment in housing—particularly those who are low-income and financially unable to gather their things and simply move.

Sexual harassment in housing: a widespread and insidious problem

According to HUD, sexual harassment in housing can occur when a housing provider “requires a person to submit to an unwelcome request to engage in sexual conduct as a condition of obtaining or maintaining housing or housing-related services”, which is referred to as quid pro quo harassment, or when “a housing provider subjects a person to severe or pervasive unwelcome sexual conduct,” which constitutes hostile environment harassment. Sexual harassment can be perpetrated by “landlords, property managers, maintenance workers, loan officers or other people who have control over housing.” Sexual harassment is discrimination on the basis of sex and is therefore outlawed by the Fair Housing Act.

Sexual harassment in housing is a widespread problem with few immediate solutions available to those who face it. DOJ and HUD have both launched initiatives dedicated to raising awareness of sexual harassment in housing, which have included the release of fact sheets and outreach materials. While these efforts have raised awareness about the problem in recent years, there is a dearth of tools and resources available when it comes to meeting the actual immediate needs of victims/survivors, and therefore limited ability to achieve safety for them.

What the HUD and DOJ initiatives do offer survivors is the ability to file a fair housing complaint. The outcomes of such a complaint can be the ability to obtain damages or injunctive relief through a lawsuit or settlement agreement. While compliance or legal action can be desirable for some, and can to some extent prevent harassers from continuing their harassment, is it not helpful for everyone who has been sexually harassed. It takes months, if not years, to see the complaint process through to completion, and bringing attention to harassment can sometimes put victims in even more danger. In many circumstances, victims find no other option but to continue to stay in the housing where they are facing harassment.

For many tenants, leaving the place they live in for a new, safe home is sometimes the most immediate and effective response. It ensures safety and distance from the harasser without having to resort to living on the streets. But moving is expensive: securing a new place typically involves paying a security deposit and/or first month’s rent, and many tenants looking for a way out of their current housing situation cannot realistically produce this money. Further, economic exploitation is often a key feature of sexual harassment in housing—landlords often prey on low-income renters on purpose.  For example, sexual harassment from a landlord can go hand in hand with unjustified increases in utility bills, and in some cases, renters are given a “choice” between submitting to unwanted sexual advances or being evicted.

Harassment in the workplace is different from harassment in the home

Workplace harassment and harassment in employment have recently gained well-deserved attention. While abhorrent, sexual harassment in the workplace is fundamentally different from harassment in housing, which HUD pointed to in publishing its final rule on sexual harassment in housing in 2016. When harassment happens in housing, your perpetrator might be able to enter your home at any time. “At least if you’re experiencing workplace harassment that’s a place where you can leave at the end of the day,” Sandra Park, senior attorney at the ACLU, told Sojourners in a feature about sexual harassment in housing. As North Carolina resident Khristen Sellers told ABC News in February, “[Your home is] your sanctuary, that’s your place of peace, your place of happiness. That’s where you’re supposed to be safest.” As such, our institutions must be better prepared to respond to the needs of victims when sexual harassment in housing occurs.

Sexual harassment in housing requires broader solutions

In order to more fully address the harm that sexual harassment in housing causes, our communities and institutions must center the needs of survivors. Fortunately, there are existing models we could look to in order to do so more effectively. For example, emergency and transitional housing is widely recognized as an important facet of effective responses to domestic violence. “There is not an organized support system for victims of sexual harassment in housing,” former HUD official Sara Pratt told Sojourners. “There are people who can help them understand that they have rights and help them file a complaint, but it’s not quite the way it is done in domestic violence cases where the public recognition is reflected in specific funding and availability of housing for victims.”

Discrimination is expensive—it has financial consequences for people. Therefore, to truly respond to the needs of victims and survivors of sexual harassment in housing, low barrier access to financial resources must be made available to low income people that are experiencing harassment. Federal funding may be one source, but the momentum of the #MeToo movement and related fundraising opens up possibilities for private philanthropy to be a part of the solution as well. Ensuring people truly have a right to a safe home is imminently possible, but will require broader commitments and more creative responses than what we currently offer survivors.

Kate Scott is the ERC’s former Deputy Director. Aastha Uprety is a Research and Communications Assistant at the ERC.

If you believe you may have experienced discrimination in housing, you can contact the Equal Rights Center. To report your experience, please call 202-234-3062 or email info@equalrightscenter.org.

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