United States Attorney William M. McSwain Announces Increased Efforts to Combat Sexual Harassment in Housing during Coronavirus Pandemic
PHILADELPHIA – United States Attorney William M. McSwain announced today that his Office is reaffirming its commitment under the Fair Housing Act to combat sexual harassment in housing. The Office is planning to hold virtual roundtables with local community organizations and encourages anyone who has experienced sexual harassment in housing, or knows someone who has, to share the information or file a complaint.
The U.S. Department of Justice enforces the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by the Act. The Department’s Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative is an effort to combat sexual harassment in housing 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 sexual harassment by landlords, property managers, maintenance workers, loan officers, or other people who have control over housing.
Launched in 2017, the initiative has filed lawsuits across the country alleging a pattern or practice of sexual harassment in housing and recovered millions of dollars in damages for harassment victims. The Department’s investigations frequently uncover sexual harassment that has been ongoing for years. Many individuals do not know that being sexually harassed by a housing provider can violate federal law or that the Department may be able to help.
The virtual roundtables taking place in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania will bring together community organizations, such as local law enforcement, legal aid offices, fair housing organizations, shelters, and transitional housing providers to share information about, and best practices for, detecting and reporting sexual harassment in housing. These organizations can identify the misconduct and encourage victims to report sexual harassment to the Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Local police departments or legal aid offices may also be able to help victims if the behavior is a crime or if there is an imminent eviction.
Recently, the coronavirus public health crisis has left many citizens in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania out of work, furloughed, or otherwise in dire financial straits. This situation has led many tenants to seek postponements of rent or other accommodations at this time. Although many landlords and housing providers will be understanding during this difficult period, others may seek to exploit the financially vulnerable through demands for sexual favors and other acts of unwelcome sexual misconduct. The Department has heard reports of housing providers trying to exploit the crisis to sexually harass tenants. Through these roundtables, the U.S. Attorney’s Office seeks to prevent such illegal conduct from occurring and to detect and punish it if it does occur.
“Sexual harassment in housing is illegal and will not be tolerated at any time, but this behavior is especially despicable amidst a global pandemic when so many workers are sidelined and vulnerable,” stated U.S. Attorney McSwain. “Our Office is dedicated to uncovering such violations where they exist and to enforcing the law, particularly during a time of crisis like the one our country is experiencing now.”
“The Fair Housing Act authorizes the U.S. Department of Justice to take swift action against anyone who sexually harasses tenants, said Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. “Landlords, property owners, and others who prey on vulnerable tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic should be on notice. We will bring the full resources of the United States Department of Justice to fight against sexual harassment in housing. We will defend the right of tenants and their families to leave peacefully and securely in their homes without the added stress, pain, fear, and turmoil of dealing with sexual predators.”
The Department encourages anyone who has experienced sexual harassment in housing, or knows someone who has, to contact the Civil Rights Division by calling (844) 380-6178 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Citizens in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania who believe they may have been victims of discrimination may also contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania at 215-861-8200, or 615 Chestnut Street, Suite 1250, Philadelphia, PA 19106, ATTN: Jacqueline C. Romero, Civil Rights Coordinator.