How to Respond to Sexual and Other Discriminatory Harassment Complaints

Sexual harassment in housing is illegal, as is harassment based on race, color, religion, national origin, familial status, or disability. The Fair Housing Act prohibits harassment, retaliation, and other types of discrimination based on these protected characteristics.

Unfortunately, given the imbalance of economic power between owner and resident in low-income housing, sexual harassment won’t go away. The need for housing is a basic human need, and there are bad actors who will exploit that need and federal programs that attempt to meet it by threatening to deny housing for victims if they don’t submit to sexual demands.

Owner Settles Claims for Millions

In 2021, the Department of Justice (DOJ) obtained a $4.5 million settlement from a New Jersey owner to resolve claims that he sexually harassed tenants. The DOJ opened the investigation in 2019 after it received a referral from HUD’s Office of the Inspector General. Many of his tenants participated in the federal Housing Choice Voucher program. The DOJ’s complaint alleged that he preyed on tenants and housing applicants, demanding that they engage in sex acts to get or keep housing. Many of these individuals were homeless or previously homeless, experiencing financial difficulties, and/or in desperate need of housing for themselves and their children. The DOJ’s complaint further alleged that he initiated or threatened to initiate eviction actions against tenants who objected to or refused his sexual advances.

In this instance, the court entered a consent decree stating that the owner has sold all of his residential rental properties. He’s permanently barred from owning and managing residential rental properties in the future. Under the consent decree, the owner must also dismiss housing court judgments, including evictions, obtained in proceedings deemed to be retaliatory and take steps to repair the credit of any affected tenants. And under the terms of the consent decree, he must pay $4,392,950 in monetary damages to tenants and prospective tenants harmed by his harassment, plus a $107,050 civil penalty to the United States [U.S. v. Centanni, December 2021].

Housing Authority Pays Price

Harassment doesn’t originate only with owners. Owners can be liable for sexual and other harassment at their site if the harassment is committed by any employee or agent and/or the owner fails to take actions within its power to stop harassment by employees or agents.

For example, the Kansas City, Kansas Housing Authority settled a case with the DOJ in September 2017. Victims reported that one employee gave housing to applicants who were appealing housing denials, and dismissed fines and fees residents owed to the housing authority, if he could show them his genitals, show them pornography, or ask them sexual questions.

More victims came forward with reports that another housing authority employee asked tenants for sex in exchange for getting into public housing or getting a housing transfer. Victims also reported that a third employee evicted residents who rejected his sexual advances. The DOJ filed a lawsuit against the employees and the housing authority. The settlement required the employees and the housing authority to pay $360,000 to the residents and applicants the employees harassed [U.S. v. Kansas City, Kansas Housing Authority, September 2017].

Take 4 Steps for Addressing Complaints

Owners and supervisors need to be able to respond effectively when a resident accuses a staff member of harassment. We’ll go over how you can establish a consistent and effective system for receiving and addressing complaints and other evidence of harassment. By doing so, you can show victims that you take harassment complaints seriously and make sure these complaints are appropriately addressed.

Set and share written anti-harassment policies. You should make sure your policies and procedures provide multiple ways for applicants, residents, and staff to submit a complaint easily and safely, such as by phone, email, online, or in person. In addition, this information should be effectively communicated to applicants and residents because an owner can’t stop harassment it doesn’t know about or mitigate liability by addressing the problems quickly.

You can establish strong and clear anti-harassment policies in your employee code of conduct. It can explicitly prohibit harassment against applicants and residents and provide for disciplinary actions for harassment or failure to respond appropriately to harassment complaints.

You can also create and post policy statements (in all appropriate languages) that make clear that sexual and other discriminatory harassment, as well as retaliation for reporting it, are prohibited. You can give every applicant and resident a package containing a copy of the anti-harassment policy as well as information about how to report harassment.

Designate a complaint coordinator. Among your staff, you should designate a complaint coordinator who is responsible for ensuring complaints are appropriately handled and processed quickly. This individual will ensure that every complaint of harassment is properly addressed, regardless of who receives it. This person can also train staff members to gather basic information if they get a complaint or otherwise learn of harassment, including:

  • Victim name and contact information for follow-up;
  • Summary of what happened (tell victim to save evidence such as texts, photos, voicemail, letters, notes, journals, etc.);
  • Name of harasser(s), witness(es), and other possible victims, if known; and
  • Date(s), time(s), and location(s) of harassment.

The complaint coordinator can also keep a case management file to identify staff or residents named in complaints, and document any corrective actions taken. However, the person carrying out the investigation must be completely impartial and not related to or in any other special relationship with either the accuser or accused.

That’s why managers shouldn’t investigate subordinates and vice versa. Individuals also shouldn’t investigate if they have a history of conflict with one of the parties. Nor should the investigators have a personal or professional stake in the outcome, such as managers determined to use the investigation to cover up wrongdoing committed by their staff.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find objective and impartial investigators, especially at small sites where everyone knows one another and may be affected by the outcome of the investigation. And even if there are objective people available, they may not be qualified to investigate a sexual harassment complaint. As a result, the complaint coordinator should consider procuring the services of an external qualified investigator to investigate tenant sexual harassment complaints at the site.

It’s critically important that the investigator not only is fair, impartial, and credible but perceived as such by both sides.

Adopt process for consistently responding to each complaint. To make sure every complaint is evaluated, your site should have a process for responding to complaints. For example, once a complaint is made, you can provide prompt written notice of receipt of the complaint to those alleged to have harassed or violated site rules (unless doing so would jeopardize the safety of the complaining individual) and to the alleged victim(s). Be sure to take measures to protect the alleged victim(s) from retaliation for making a complaint.

And any allegations should be investigated thoroughly, informing the alleged victim and alleged harasser of the findings from the investigation, and providing an explanation of what action was (or was not) taken, and why. For example, if an investigation confirms the truth of the allegations, you must take action against any employees involved. More often than not, action will include discipline and perhaps termination based on the terms of your progressive discipline policies and procedures and the unique circumstances involved—for example, the gravity of the offense, the position and disciplinary history of the employee who committed it, remorse exhibited, etc.

You must also be prepared to hold agents who aren’t employees accountable for the sexual harassment they commit—for example, by terminating agreements or exerting financial pressures on landscaping, cleaning, servicing, or other contractors whose employees harass your tenants.

In situations where the alleged harasser has denied the allegations, you must look for other information that might help determine the truth. For example, past complaints against the same person might corroborate the allegations.

Maintain records and assess complaint procedures. You must maintain a record of all complaints, including in both the alleged victim’s file and the alleged harasser’s file. Also, maintain records from the investigation. It’s critically important to thoroughly document each step of the investigation so you can retrace your steps and prove that the investigation was thorough and fair. Keep the following records:

  • The harassment complaint submitted by the tenant or third-party witness on the tenant’s behalf;
  • The investigation plan;
  • Witness statements and interview notes;
  • The investigation report and recommendations; and
  • The actions you took in response to the report or the reasons you determined not to take any corrective actions.

In addition, assess periodically whether your site’s complaint procedures are effective. You can survey and seek input on existing policies and practices from residents and organizations. For example, seeking input from a local legal aid office may help you find ways to strengthen your complaint process.

Other Types of Illegal Harassment

Illegal harassment can be severe or pervasive offensive remarks or hostile behavior because of a person’s race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin. Examples:

  • Repeatedly yelling anti-Muslim slurs at a Muslim household.
  • Taunting and threatening a person with a mental disability.
  • Subjecting a person to pervasive racial epithets or defacing a person’s home with racially derogatory or threatening words or images.