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The federal Fair Housing Act protects tenants from sexual discrimination by landlords, including prospective landlords. Many states also have specific housing laws banning sexual harassment or discrimination.
Landlords sexually harassing tenants is not a new situation, but large swaths of the community now being unemployed or in financial distress has made even more people vulnerable.
“Of course that’s not the root cause of why it’s happening, but it makes it easier because now [landlords] have access to people at their fingertips,” said Jabola-Carolus.
Often landlords who sexually harass tenants are serial offenders who are “taking advantage of the situation to engage in misconduct they are generally already being investigated or caught for,” said Ring.
She was already working on six sexual harassment housing cases before the COVID-19 epidemic began. But the huge number of people being unable to afford this month’s rent has dramatically increased the risk of it happening.
“We’ve heard some landlords are attempting to use the situation where a tenant falls behind to pressure a tenant into exchanging sex for rent,” said Ring.
And with stay-at-home orders being issued across the country, and a huge public health crisis unfolding, the need for safe housing is more important than ever — something that can be used by landlords to their advantage.
“The power dynamic goes without saying,” said Jabola-Carolus. “All of us feel intimidated by our landlords because shelter is so critical.”
In particular, women of color and trans women are often the most likely to be targeted for sexual harassment by landlords, said Ring.
Jabola-Carolus pointed out 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 conditions are ripe for sexual exploitation,” said Jabola-Carolus.
The complaints to Jabola-Carolus’s commission were first reported by local station KITV.
Ring said people who are being sexually harassed should try their best not to give in to a landlord’s demands or compromise with them.
“You can’t really negotiate how much illegality the landlord is willing to do,” said Ring.
Instead, she said that any person being sexually harassed by their landlord should contact their local legal aid or tenant’s rights organization and get immediate legal help.
“It’s important to know what your rights are as quickly as possible,” said Ring. “Even now, just because courts are closed to most things, it doesn’t mean you do not have recourse right now and can’t be protected.”
It is also illegal in every state for a landlord to change the locks because a tenant did not comply with their harassment.
“The law is definitely on your side,” said Jabola-Carolus, who wrote an online guide for how women in Hawaii can respond to harassment from landlords. “There is recourse, and there is recourse against retaliation.”