Sexual harassment and domestic violence threaten fair access to housing

Housing discrimination and sexual harassment often overlap and create additional barriers for women in accessing and maintaining safe and affordable housing.

Of the federal protected classes, sexual harassment is included under the criteria for protections against sex discrimination. Sexual harassment is covered under Title VII, but also has specific protections in the Fair Housing Act (FHA) as well, because individual poor behaviors should never threaten access to safe housing. 

Two specific types of sexual harassment are covered under the FHA: quid pro quo and hostile environment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment in housing is when a person is told they are required to submit to an unwelcome request in sexual conduct as a condition to a housing-related service. Whether the request is implicitly or explicitly stated, this is against the law and should be reported as a fair housing violation. Hostile environment sexual harassment occurs when a person is subjected to any sort of unwelcome sexual conduct during the sale, rental, availability, financing or any housing-related service from a housing provider. 

The effects of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders created a unique environment for those without stable housing, and has increased concerns of housing discrimination based on sexual harassment. The economic stress during the pandemic has made landlords more likely to negotiate terms with tenants, and has resulted in increased reports of this type of housing discrimination. These conditions disproportionately impact women and low- and moderate-income communities.

Domestic violence also creates barriers for women in need of housing. One in four women experience intimate partner violence within their own homes. Again, the effects of COVID have also highlighted this fact due to many people trapped at home with their abusers. 

Domestic violence is the leading cause for women to become homeless in the United States, and the fear of recurring housing instability can convince them to stay in dangerous situations. The threat of homelessness also deters women from reporting incidents. Dealing with inappropriate behavior aggravates the stress and healing from previous trauma. 

Domestic and sexual violence survivors and women who have experienced homelessness are more likely to be subjected to sexual harrassment in housing. The economic impact of being a survivor is often correlated with the ability to find stable and safe housing. It is also more difficult for survivors to keep and maintain housing due to poor finances from the situations they left to escape the violence. 

Complex traumas compound and have long-lasting effects, and a history of trauma leaves victims more vulnerable and at risk to experience additional harassment. Many situations of sexual harassment in housing go unreported. In some fair housing cases, landlords were noted to target single, low-income mothers for sexual harassment because they were less likely to report the incidents.

Sexual harassment violates the FHA and fair housing groups and advocates can and should reach out to homeless shelters and other groups that house victims of sexual harrassment and domestic abuse to educate them on their rights so they know what protections apply to them. Without reporting incidents, it is very difficult to know who the bad actors are and ensure they receive consequences for violating the law and harming the communities they should be helping.

If you think you or someone you know has been discriminated against in the housing arena, submit a complaint with NCRC’s Fair Housing team. 

If you or someone you know is the victim of domestic violence, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline.

Sara Oros is NCRC’s Fair Housing and Fair Lending program coordinator.

Photo by Mihai Surdu from Pixabay

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