Reports of sexual harassment by landlords are reportedly climbing as more and more Americans are struggling to pay rent during the coronavirus pandemic. Organizations in several states, including Hawaii and Illinois, reported seeing an increase in sexual harassment complaints in the month of April.
“We’ve received more cases at our office in the last two days than we have in the last two years,” Khara Jabola-Carolus, the executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, told BuzzFeed News.
One of those complaints came from a woman who said she texted a prospective landlord inquiring about a more affordable property when he responded with a pic of his genitals.
Another newly unemployed woman said she asked her landlord if she could pay her April rent once she was able to gain employment. He replied by telling her she could come over and spoon him instead.
Those were just two of the 10 complaints of sexual harassment by landlords filed with the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women since the COVID-19 outbreak began.
Nearly one-third of Americans did not pay their April rent within the first five days of the month, according to BuzzFeed. It appears some landlords are allegedly taking advantage of the crisis, using it as an opportunity to sexually harass tenants struggling to pay rent.
“We have seen an uptick in sexual harassment,” said Sheryl Ring, the legal director at Open Communities, a legal aid and fair housing agency just north of Chicago. She said her organization has seen a threefold increase in sexual harassment complaints related to housing in the last month.
“Since this started, they (landlords) have been taking advantage of the financial hardships many of their tenants have in order to coerce their tenants into a sex-for-rent agreement — which is absolutely illegal,” said Ring.
The federal Fair Housing Act protects tenants from sexual discrimination by landlords as well as prospective landlords. Many states also have their own housing laws banning sexual harassment or discrimination.
Landlords sexually harassing tenants is nothing new, but now that a large number of Americans are unemployed and financially struggling, the situation can make tenants more vulnerable.
Women of color and trans women are often the most likely to be targeted for sexual harassment by landlords, according to Ring.
She advises people who are being sexually harassed should try their best not to give in to a landlord’s demands or compromise with them.
“You can’t really negotiate how much illegality the landlord is willing to do,” said Ring.
She says anyone being sexually harassed by their landlord should contact their local legal aid or tenant’s rights organization and get immediate legal help.
“It’s important to know what your rights are as quickly as possible,” said Ring. “Even now, just because courts are closed to most things, it doesn’t mean you do not have recourse right now and can’t be protected.”
It is also illegal in every state for a landlord to change the locks because a tenant did not comply with their harassments.
“The law is definitely on your side,” said Jabola-Carolus, who wrote an online guide for how women in Hawaii can respond to harassment from landlords. “There is recourse, and there is recourse against retaliation.”