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Feds warn landlords against sex harassment in housing during pandemic

Eastern District U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue talks to

Eastern District U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue talks to the media in June 2019.   Credit: AP/Mark Lennihan

The chief prosecutor for the Eastern District warned landlords Monday against the illegal and “predatory” practice of trying to get sexual favors from tenants in exchange for nonpayment of rent due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Eastern District U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue said he was issuing his remarks “in response to reports” of the practice happening during the crisis and efforts by his office to crack down.

Donoghue did not elaborate on any specific instances. The Eastern District covers Long Island, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.

“Tenants who find themselves unemployed and in dire financial straits due to COVID-19 crisis are protected from discrimination under the Fair Housing Act,“ Donoghue said. “No tenant should ever be expected to provide sexual favors in order to keep a roof over their head.”

Other U.S. Attorney’s offices around the country are engaged in similar enforcement as part of the Justice Department’s Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative of October 2017, Donoghue said. “The goal of the initiative is to address sexual harassment by landlords, property managers, maintenance workers, loan officers or other people who have control over housing."

Recently, the television show "Inside Edition" ran a segment on a sting operation it conducted on a Long Island landlord who advertised on Craigslist’s a willingness, the show said, to trade rent in return for sex because of the financial troubles caused by the coronavirus.

A spokesman for the Eastern District, John Marzulli, declined to comment on whether the situation depicted in the show was under investigation.

These type of violations of the Fair Housing Act are tried civilly and can result in monetary damages determined in one of three ways: either by a settlement, a jury, or a judge. There is no set amount on the damages that can be awarded for a violation.

Anyone aware of sexual harassment in housing is asked to contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office by email at USANYE-CivilRights@usa.doj.gov or by calling 718-254-7000. 

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