Although sexual harassment in the employment context receives considerable attention both in popular culture 21 and in the justice system,22 a significant number of victims endure sexual harassment at home, in silence, and without legal recourse. More often than not, such victims share similar characteristics: they are usually poor, often with young children, and frequently nonwhite. Many victims are so poor that they qualify for governmental housing benefits. Furthermore, it is not unusual for such victims to have recently lived with friends or family members or to have been homeless. Their desperation for housing is usually related to concern not for their own well-being, but rather for their children. More than anything, they want to keep a decent roof over their families' heads. Victims of sexual harassment in housing are not selected at random. The characteristics they share in common are the same characteristics that make them both attractive and vulnerable to predatory landlords. Because of their poverty, isolation, and desperation, they are more willing to comply and endure than report the harasser or assert their legal rights. Ultimately, they fear the consequences of resisting the harassment-the loss of their current housing, potential blacklisting in the local housing community, and possible termination of governmental housing benefits-more than the harassment itself. In this way, sexual harassment in housing23 is meaningfully different than other forms of residential harassment, such as racial, disability, or national origin harassment. A neighbor who burns a cross in the lone African-American family's yard is presumably intending to force that family out of its home. The same result is likely intended when insults and religious epithets are scrawled outside a Jewish family's house. But the landlord who sexually harasses his tenant is not intending to drive her out; instead, he is attempting to draw her in-to hold her captive, through the use of psychological, economic, or sometimes legal coercion-to satisfy his own desire to control and exploit. The primary federal statute combating discrimination in housing celebrates its fortieth anniversary in 2008. Although the Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) does not expressly prohibit harassment of existing tenants, its broad terms have been interpreted by various courts, beginning in 1983, to protect occupancy. Since that time, federal doctrine governing claims of post-acquisition harassment has developed piecemeal and inconsistently across the federal circuits, with courts frequently borrowing--often without much thoughtful explanation--significant theories or legal tests from the Title VII employment context. This process has been made more difficult not simply because of the lack of clear statutory protection in this area, but also because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has never promulgated final rules articulating the precise contours of harassment claims under the FHA.
Aric K. Short,
Slaves for Rent: Sexual Harassment in Housing as Involuntary Servitude,
86 Neb. L. Rev.
Available at: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nlr/vol86/iss4/3