Justice Dept targets landlords demanding sexual favors in lieu of rent during pandemic

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Attorney General William Barr speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Briefing Room, Monday, March 23, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Attorney General William Barr directed U.S. attorneys across the country to prioritize cases in which landlords have been accused of asking renters for sexual favors in exchange for housing, targeting those who need to defer rental payments because of economic hardship caused by the ongoing pandemic.

“Such behavior is despicable and it is illegal,” Barr said in the memo. “And the Department of Justice has not hesitated to intervene when clear misconduct occurs.  This behavior is not tolerated in normal times, and certainly will not be tolerated now.”

A senior Justice Department official tells CBS News that it is looking into some complaints at the moment but does not comment on ongoing investigations.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women has received 12 complaints from tenants alleging sexual harassment by their landlords. Khara Jabola-Carolus, the executive director of the commission, told CBS News in a phone interview that since Buzzfeed News first reported on the problem last week, her office has been fielding calls from women around the country, from San Francisco to Indianapolis, asking her office — far from the mainland — for help.  

“Women didn’t seem to have any clue about where to go,”  Jabola-Carolus said.

As part of the growing list of COVID-19-related priorities for the department, Barr has enlisted the help of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Eric Dreiband, and Christina Nolan, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont, to spearhead the effort.

At the beginning of April, about a third of renters in the U.S. failed to make their payments on time, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council. Last week, 4.4 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits, and more than 26 million Americans have lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

But while some landlords have provided rent relief for their tenants who may be feeling financial strain given growing financial uncertainty, others are violating state and federal housing laws by demanding sexual favors in lieu of a monthly payment.

Predatory practices in housing have been an ongoing problem that the department has been monitoring since the creation of its Sexual Harassment and Housing initiative in 2017. 

Earlier this month, the Department announced that it had filed a lawsuit against the co-owners and managers of several rental properties in Russellville, Kentucky, who had allegedly engaged in persistent harassment against female tenants since 2012.  

The defendants violated the Fair Housing Act when they persisted in the conduct, the Justice Department says. In one example, a property manager was “offering to grant tangible housing benefits — such as reducing the rent and overlooking or excusing late or unpaid rent — to female tenants in exchange for sexual favors.”

No attorneys of record could be found for the defendants in that case.

“The current times are difficult enough without predatory practices by unscrupulous landlords,” Barr said.

Read the Justice Department memo here:

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