The Justice Department announced today that Joseph Centanni, a landlord who has owned hundreds of rental units in and around Elizabeth, New Jersey, has agreed to pay $4.5 million in monetary damages and a civil penalty to resolve a Fair Housing Act (FHA) lawsuit concerning his sexual harassment of tenants and housing applicants for more than 15 years. This settlement, which still must be approved by the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, is the largest monetary settlement the department has ever obtained in a case alleging sexual harassment in housing.
The FHA prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, which includes sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Centanni focused his harassment on women, as well as men who are gay or bisexual. The monetary damages awarded under the proposed consent decree will compensate numerous women and men who were sexually harassed by Centanni.
“This lawsuit and historic settlement send a clear message that the Department will not stand by idly as landlords abuse their power to prey on vulnerable tenants,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Sexual harassment of tenants is abhorrent and unlawful, and has devastating consequences on victims. The Justice Department stands as committed as ever to aggressively pursuing landlords and housing providers who engage in this violative and threatening conduct.”
“The need for housing is a basic human need,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Rachael A. Honig of the District of New Jersey. “Joseph Centanni exploited that need, and the important federal programs that attempt to meet it, by threatening to deny his victims a roof over their heads if they did not submit to his demands for sexual acts. This landmark settlement demonstrates our unyielding commitment to combat sexual harassment in housing and to ensure that no one is subject to discrimination because of their sex, including based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
“No one deserves to be victimized and preyed upon in their own home,” said Inspector General Rae Oliver Davis of Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). “HUD OIG is committed to investigating with our law enforcement partners to pursue predatory landlords and hold them accountable for this egregious behavior and seek relief for victims.”
The United States’ lawsuit alleged that Centanni’s harassment spanned a period of at least 15 years. According to the complaint, Centanni demanded sexual favors, like oral sex, to get or keep housing; offered housing benefits, such as reduced rent in exchange for sexual favors; touched tenants and applicants in a way that was sexual and unwelcome and made unwelcome sexual comments and advances to tenants and applicants. The complaint also alleged that Centanni initiated or threatened to initiate eviction actions against tenants who objected to or refused his sexual advances. According to the complaint, Centanni participated in the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program (also known as Section 8) and received approximately $102,000 each month in Housing Choice Voucher payments.
The United States’ complaint alleged that Centanni would take housing applicants and tenants to places on his properties like empty apartments, and empty laundry or storage rooms. There, he would do things like ask for massages, expose himself, demand oral sex and force people to touch him sexually. If people submitted to his demands, Centanni allowed them to move in, or keep their housing. If people did not submit, Centanni refused to rent to them, or evicted them.
Under the terms of the proposed consent decree, Centanni will pay $4,392,950 in monetary damages to tenants and prospective tenants harmed by his harassment, through a process established in the consent decree. Individuals who believe that they were subjected to sexual harassment by Centanni should contact the Housing Discrimination Tip Line toll free, at 1-833-591-0291, and select option number one to leave a message. Individuals can also contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office Civil Rights Hotline at (855) 281-3339. Individuals may also e-mail the Justice Department at email@example.com, or submit a report online.
The proposed consent decree reflects that Centanni has sold all of his residential rental properties. Under the terms of the settlement, he is permanently enjoined from owning and managing residential rental properties in the future. Centanni will be required to dismiss housing court judgments obtained in proceedings deemed to be retaliatory and take steps to repair the credit of any affected tenants. He must also pay a $107,050 civil penalty to the United States, the maximum civil penalty allowed under the FHA.
There are separate, ongoing, criminal prosecutions against Centanni brought by the Office of the Union County, New Jersey, Prosecutor. To date, that office has charged Centanni with coercing 20 tenants into sexual acts in exchange for financial relief. Centanni is charged with 13 counts of second-degree sexual assault, 1 count of second-degree attempted sexual assault, and 21 counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact. Individuals may learn more about the criminal prosecution at https://ucnj.org/prosecutor/press-releases/prosecutor/2021/07/01/elizabeth-landlord-charged-with-sexual-crimes-against-7-additional-tenants-bringing-total-to-20/. Individuals with information about Centanni may reach the Union County Prosecutor’s Office by contacting Detective Joanne Son at (908) 477-1698.
Assistant Attorney General Clarke and Acting U.S. Attorney Honig credit the special agents of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Inspector General, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Christina Scaringi, for their partnership in this matter.
The Justice Department launched its Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative in October 2017. The department’s initiative is led by the Civil Rights Division, in coordination with U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country. The goal of the initiative is to address and raise awareness about sexual harassment by landlords, property managers, maintenance workers, loan officers, or other people who have control over housing. Since launching the initiative, the Department of Justice has filed 23 lawsuits alleging sexual harassment in housing and recovered over $9.5 million for victims of skuch harassment.
If you think you are a victim of sexual harassment by a landlord, or other forms of housing discrimination, you may contact the Justice Department by submitting a report online or contacting the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey at (855) 281-3339 or by filing a complaint online.
Reports also may be made by contacting the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at 1-800-669-9777 or by filing a complaint online.