Thursday, May 9, 2024

Silent Social Pandemic: Sexual Harassment by Predatory Landlords

       Behind the sunny public service announcements admonishing happy middle class families and comfortable wealthy families to shelter-in-place to stay safe from Covid-19, there is another side to America that has been hidden, the struggles of financially vulnerable women. According to the surveys conducted by the National Fair Housing Alliance, its 80 fair housing groups across the country have experienced a 13% increase in sexual harassment complaints. Many of the images circulating during the pandemic are associated with warmth, safety and love however for many low income women who are a part of the percentage who have not paid rent or are at risk of not being to afford rent, these images betray reality. As opposed to comfort and safety, predatory landlords have deliberately transformed these womens’ homes into a virtual dungeon of terror, psychological torture and sexual violence in a perverted effort to abuse tenants who are financially trapped.

Landlords and Power

Silent yet Dominant Housing Culture Empowering Predatory Landlords

    Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, landlords are latently experiencing the most unprecedented rise in power in recent history. The power imbalance between low income tenants and predatory landlords have grown, creating fertile ground for dangerous and abusive conditions. Many landlords have sensed this increase in power and are quickly moving to capitalize on it by unveiling their predatory natures through abusive sexual demands. While Covid-19 has granted landlords power, the cultural acceptance of preying on financially vulnerable women has been a primary force in bolstering their power and writing the script on how landlords should react to their own power.

        A news headline detailing sexual harassment by landlords showcases this acceptance with the featured quote by Jabola-Carolus, “Landlord coercion has always been a reality, but we’ve never seen anything like this" . The poignant statement that landlord coercion has always been a reality was not addressed in depth and instead the focus seemed to be the shock that this sexualized aspect of housing culture that has guided how many landlords treated women has now become overt and more widespread. According to Sandra Park, senior attorney at ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, sexual harassment related to housing has historically received little attention since the issue predominately targets low income women. Sandra Park, explains, “If you think about #MeToo and attention to sexual harassment and employment, that affected women of all economic classes. This issue has always targeted low-income women particularly…”

       Therefore despite the presence of robust and aggressive housing laws, culture is providing sexually predatory landlords the protection they need to continue harming women. In addition, Covid-19 is a novel phenomenon and new untested laws such as eviction moratoriums have been propped up to protect tenants while cultural norms validating sexual exploitation are already deeply entrenched in housing. In fact society almost appears content with sexual predators harming members of a socially stigmatized group and stigmatized individuals. Therefore the eviction protection policies have been constructed on shaky foundation and have been easily undermined by the dominant quiet narratives that shape attitudes about housing access. Rachel Garland, an attorney at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia outlined the situation, “Even if they can’t be evicted right now, if the courts are closed, the landlords are sending threatening emails, text messages, asking for rent, threatening to lock tenants out.” Financial duress already causes a sense of disempowerment but with landlords holding such much cultural power many low income women feel too disempowered to report such behavior enabling the landlord to be a repeat offender.

       The culture of sexual exploitation should not be allowed to dominate how housing is distributed and rewarded, instead knowledge of various laws such as the Fair Housing Act, state tenant-landlord laws and the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Act of 2015 need to have a place in casual discussions about housing. The knowledge of these laws need to compete with the idea that men are sexually entitled to financially vulnerable women. When Attorney General William Barr outlined in a memo to an audience of attorneys the action to take against landlords sexually harassing tenants, the tone was more aligned to the law and less compliant. Barr declared, “Such behavior is despicable, and it is illegal. This behavior is not tolerated in normal times, and certainly will not be tolerated now”. These law based attitudes that recognize that sexually harassing tenant is illegal need to be more common in society.

Collapse of Mainstream Resources

       Institutional resources to combat sexual harassment associated with housing was already limited due to the issue largely being a quiet part of housing culture, but the very institutions themselves are now invisible due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Shelter-in-place laws have systematically distanced tenants from institutions external to the home that could provide some accountability and even competition for the landlord. For example, in Hawaii a tenant normally could report the offending behavior to the Hawaiʻi Civil Rights Commission (HCRC) however they were closed due to the pandemic up until June 10. In addition many courts were closed which encouraged inaction by victims and other institutions that remained opened such as the Legal Aid Society were more likely than not stressed.

       The sudden lapse of funds resulting from the hasty shelter-in-place policies have assisted in the collapse of entire industries which in turn has caused a collapse of social and financial resources for the low income women targeted. For example, “Jabola-Carolus noted that in Hawaii the now-collapsed tourism industry has created a particularly volatile situation for its many Latino, immigrant, and Native Hawaiian women workers.” The collapse of industries has been concentrated in the retail and the food service sector which employs a vast amount of women and provides valuable services to many women. More frightening the pandemic has caused a visible absence of resources which removed the ability of financially vulnerable women to hide their economic struggles while they discreetly improve their situation. These circumstances encourage predatory landlords to be more emboldened with their efforts, to feel invincible and feel above the law. In addition, the eviction moratoriums provide some assistance but did not address a multi-set of issues such as harassment and the impacts of owing months of rent. A solid plan was not put in place beforehand to provide solutions for sexual harassment that may ensue due to how the efforts to contain Covid-19 has inadvertently isolated vulnerable women. More importantly, resources other than just having a job to make enough money to pay rent or being able to report predatory landlords are needed. Renee Williams, a senior staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project explained, "Landlords have all the leverage in the landlord-tenant relationship and in these types of situations, they especially prey on women who are vulnerable, who are housing insecure, have bad credit or who don't have anywhere to go. We've already seen that the pandemic is exacerbating a lot of systemic issues and sexual harassment targeted at tenants by landlords is likely to be one of these issues." This indicates that solutions need to be multifaceted such as providing personal financial classes in high school to lessen the occurrence of bad credit within vulnerable communities and affordable housing to alleviate housing insecurity. Overall despite the assurance by advocates that solutions and resources are plentiful, the process for getting justice and to gain access to resources that shield oneself from predators appear nebulous.

A Closer Look

       Savvy predators are experts at not providing proof of their behavior through sexually explicitphotos, written date requests or asking for other ‘sexual’ arrangements while witnesses who support the victimized tenant are present however overt predators do provide some insight. A sexually predatory landlord named Eddie who became so emboldened that he flagrantly broke the law was recently investigated by the Department of Justice. The Craigslist ad which dripped with illegal intentions detailed his demands, entitled “Room Share for Submissive Female.” “If you are a submissive female 20-50 years old and into the SM lifestyle on a moderate to extreme level and looking for a safe place to stay … and wanting to barter session/playtime once per week in lieu of rent we should talk. During these hard times Covid-19 has thrown many in a tailspin. But if you don’t mind the situation for a simple safe clean environment why not.” This predator, as many predators, was selecting a victim that would submit to his sexualized demands without question. He also is searching for a desperate woman who is more willing to engage in activity than many would not be in mainstream society. He assumed that he was taking advantage of future victims that do not have a safe place to stay at. These facts do not invoke a sense of compassion but instead a hardened desire to exploit them. Then he pretends as if these terms are fair or will be fair by suggesting he will negotiate with usage of the word barter. He is explicitly and knowingly taking advantage of a worldwide pandemic that is killing thousands and acting as if this is a flippant decision. However his behavior is anything but simple. He then lies and claims that this situation will be safe and clean when sexual predators who exploit others in difficult times to take advantage of the power imbalance are incapable of providing safety. In fact the primary objective of the predator is to find a victim who they can disregard the safety of, not provide safety.

       Alycia Powers, a producer for "Inside Edition", posed as a future tenant and responded to the ad. Eddie quickly took control demanding she “wear my hair down, no jewellery, and minimal makeup. And then meet him in the room, undress and put on a pair of stilettos he got me.” As most abusers, his appetite for control started with the victims appearance but overtime would have extended to other intimate aspects of her life. I doubt that the quality of the housing he is providing is worth giving someone this type of control over their life. Despite his depravity he was still able to maintain that he was “really a decent guy”. If institutions can utilize enough resources to change this unhealthy culture, then any individual as depraved as Eddie will be less able to convince themselves of their decency, his social group will be less accepting his behavior and more vulnerable women can be protected.


The Baltimore Sun: A tidal wave of bankruptcies is coming, article published June 21, 2020.

Buzzfeed.News:Her Landlord Asked To Spend The Night With Her After She Lost Her Job And Couldn’t Afford Rent, article published May 14, 2020.

Buzzfeed.News:Landlords Are Allegedly Asking For Sex From Tenants Who Can't Afford To Pay Rent Right Now, article published April 15, 2020.

CBS News: Justice Dept targets landlords demanding sexual favors in lieu of rent during pandemic, article published April 23, 2020.

Independent:New York landlord caught offering rent-free accommodation in exchange for sex, article published May 1, 2020.

JDSUPRA:Retail Industry Turns to Bankruptcy Due to COVID-19, article published June 11, 2020.

KTLA5: Tenants behind on rent face harassment, eviction across U.S. amid pandemic, article published June 13, 2020.

Medium: Property Pimps: What to Do If Your Landlord Pressures Sex for Rent During COVID-19, article published April 8, 2020.

NBCNews:Landlords are targeting vulnerable tenants to solicit sex in exchange for rent, advocates say, article published April 17, 2020.

Time:Renters Are Being Forced From Their Homes Despite Eviction Moratoriums Meant to Protect Them, article published April 15, 2020.

The United States Department of Justice: DOJ Increases Efforts to Combat Sexual Harassment in Housing During the COVID-19 Pandemic, article published May 5, 2020.

The United States Department of Justice: U.S. Attorney asks public to report predatory housing practices amid COVID-19 pandemic, article published May 4, 2020.

Vice: The Department of Justice Is Going After Landlords Asking Tenants for Sex When They Can't Pay Rent, article published April 24, 2020.

The Wall Street Journal: More Tenants Paid Rent on Time in May, but Activists Press On With Strikes, article published May 8, 2020.

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