Millions of Americans are out of work and unable to make ends meet, as businesses large and small across the country have shuttered due to social-distancing and other factors related to the pandemic. That means that, among other things, many Americans have had and are having difficulty paying their rent. Indeed, by one measure, nearly a third of Americans weren’t able to pay their rent in April due to the coronavirus.
Some landlords have reportedly taken this opportunity to attempt to coerce female tenants into sex acts in exchange for rent.
It’s called “landlord coercion,” and it’s a crime, says Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women.
“The coronavirus creates the perfect conditions for landlords who want to do this because not only are people being instructed to stay home, but the virus has added to the economic stress with people losing their jobs,” she said.
In Hawaii, the financial hardships of the virus are being felt particularly hard, due to the state’s reliance on tourism revenue.
And as such, Jabola-Carolus says that she’s received 10 reports involving 9 landlords allegedly attempting to practice landlord coercion. In one case, for example, when a woman expressed her concerns about not being able to pay the rent, her landlord allegedly responded by sending unsolicited photographs of his genitalia.
“Landlords have all the leverage in the landlord-tenant relationship and in these types of situations, they especially prey on women who are vulnerable,” says women’s advocate Renee Williams, a senior staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project.
What’s more, she suspects that the problem is only going to get worse as the pandemic drags on.
Tenants who are victimized have some tools at their disposal to fight back against this type of harassment.
Some states, for example, have enacted eviction moratoriums due to the pandemic, although some experts say that these rules may not be enough to keep low-income tenants in their homes.
Otherwise, tenants victimized in this way could take their landlord to court under the federal Fair Housing Act, which states that sexual harassment in the landlord-tenant relationship is illegal.
Sandra Park, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberty Union’s Women’s Rights Project, said that many courts are delaying the adjudication of non-violent offenses for a while due to the coronavirus pandemic, so a tenant who files a complaint about this may not get justice for a while. But a complaint will put a landlord on notice that such behavior is unacceptable, says Park.