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Study: Sexual harassment by landlords

Wmc Features Rigel Oliveri 012319
Law professor Rigel Oliveri plans to expand her research on landlord sexual harassment. Photo courtesy of Rigel Oliveri.

After a small pilot study found that one in 10 low-income female tenants in Columbia, Mo., had been sexually harassed and/or assaulted by their male landlords, the former U.S. Justice Department lawyer conducting that research said she is planning to replicate it in other locales.

“The facts of these cases would make your skin crawl,” said fair-housing expert Rigel Oliveri, a University of Missouri School of Law professor who was a Justice Department litigator during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

 “These aren’t women from prestigious law firms or accounting firms,” she added, “women with money and resources to bring a case to trial and get their story told. In its current form, the #MeToo movement mainly puts high-status actresses and media people in the spotlight. The women in my study, that’s just not the case for them.”

Her findings are consistent with those of several previous studies of sexual harassment in housing, including against low-income tenants.

Published in Missouri Law Review’s summer 2018 issue and based on interviews with 100 women in Columbia, Sexual Harassment of Low-income Women in Housing: Pilot Study Results detailed, as examples, how:

  • A 48-year-old tenant, housing her granddaughter and paying their rent out of her Social Security Disability payments, was forced to move after refusing her landlord’s offer to make her housing “cheaper and easier” in exchange for sex. The landlord also refused to allow her male visitors and spied on her while she was in his rental property.
  • An 18-year-old college student, living with a roommate, refused her landlord’s solicitation in exchange for rent and expedited repairs to the rental. He tracked her comings and goings.
  • A jobless 21-year-old, who occasionally worked as an exotic dancer, refused her landlord’s request for “oral and regular sex” when she got behind on her rent. He entered her rental randomly and without warning, including several times while she was in the shower.
  • A 21-year-old single mother of three, employed as an aide in a facility for people with disabilities, chose not to rent a unit from a landlord who, while showing her the unit, locked the door and asked for oral sex. If she complied, he said, he would let her forgo paying a security deposit.

Kalila Jackson, staff attorney for the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council, said cases like those are a steady part of her workload at that nonprofit organization. 

Jackson, who’s also employed at a private law firm in St. Louis, set the stage for a federal lawsuit, built over a five-year period, resulting in a now former St. Louis landlord being ordered to pay $600,000 to 15 low-income female former tenants and prospective tenants he was found guilty of groping, sexually propositioning, and/or wrongly evicting for refusing his demands between 1994 and 2014. 

Based on its investigation of attorney Jackson’s complaint of sexual harassment, filed in 2013 on behalf of Shakhari Bell, one of ex-landlord Hezekiah Webb’s accusers, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sued Webb in federal court. In addition to paying $600,000 to those former tenants, Webb and his wife, Jameseva Webb, with whom he co-owned the properties, were ordered to pay a $25,000 civil penalty and to sell or transfer ownership of all their properties.  

“This big takeaway is this: It’s not just the monetary settlement that matters,” said attorney Jackson, who has conferred with Oliveri about her research. “The monetary settlement is one small piece of it. Mr. Webb will never manage properties again. Shakhari has changed the lives of women who will never know her name. We encourage other women to come out of the shadows. We know what’s happening to them. We say, ‘We believe you.’”

That case is emblematic of a much larger problem, said Oliveri, who is in the midst of applying for research grants to replicate her analysis in, among other places, San Diego, Chicago, and points in the Northeast and Southeast. Her research comes as the U.S. Justice Department continues its own initiative, launched in October 2017, against sexual harassment in housing. 

In addition to finding that one in 10 of the 100 interview subjects in Columbia alleged sexual harassment severe enough to warrant legal action, Oliveri concluded that:

  • Five of the 10 women were the only adults in households with children.
  • Six of the 10 worked low-wage jobs (as hotel housekeepers, nurse’s aides, and school bus drivers).
  • Just three of the women received federal Section 8 rent subsidies for those deemed the poorest of the poor.
  • Of the remaining seven, three paid rent with their work earnings; three relied on family and friends to pay rent; and one relied on her Social Security payments.
  • Nine of the 10 women reporting that they’d been sexually harassed were Black or multiracial; one was White.
  • In addition to the 10 who had grounds for legal action, six other women reported that their landlords subjected them other problematic behavior that did not meet the legal standards for what constitutes sexual harassment.

“I think all of these women knew that what was happening to them was wrong,” Oliveri said. “I’m not sure they all knew exactly what to do about it. … One woman in the study called the police. She thought that the police would be the best people to contact. According to her, the police took a statement and didn’t do anything else.

“I’ve had other women who … weren’t sure who to contact. And, frankly, they were afraid that, if they made a complaint, they would lose their housing.”

Said Jackson, “We’re hoping Rigel will bring this study to St. Louis. We believe these problems are widespread. This is not like being discriminated against on your job. In those situations, at the very least, at least you can go home. If you’re being discriminated against and harassed in your home, where is your safe space?”

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