The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have begun a nationwide initiative intended to combat sexual harassment in housing. This effort includes an interagency task force between HUD and DOJ, an outreach toolkit, and a public awareness campaign.
In October 2017, the DOJ started a pilot program to combat sexual harassment in housing in D.C. and the Western District of Virginia, which includes Abingdon, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, and Roanoke. This action increases DOJ efforts to protect women from harassment by landlords, property managers, maintenance workers, security guards, and other employees and representatives of rental property owners. The goal of the pilot program was to develop improved ways to connect with both victims of sexual harassment in housing and organizations that assist such victims. In addition to D.C. and Western Virginia, the DOJ tested certain aspects of the initiative in New Jersey, Central California, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Michigan.
The result of the pilot was in increase in harassment reporting from both D.C. and Western Virginia. In D.C., the Department has generated six leads since October 2017, with three leads coming from Virginia. If implemented nationally, DOJ believes this will lead to hundreds of new reports of sexual harassment in housing.
Because of these results, three major components of the initiative are being rolled out.
First – the HUD/DOJ Task Force to Combat Sexual Harassment in Housing will develop a shared strategy for combatting sexual harassment in housing across the country. This strategy focuses on five key areas: (1) continued data sharing and analysis; (2) joint development of training; (3) evaluation of public housing complaint mechanisms; (4) coordination of public outreach and press strategy; and (5) review of existing federal policies.
Second – the outreach toolkit is designed to leverage HUD and DOJ’s nationwide network of U.S. Attorney’s Offices. The kit provides templates, guidance, and checklists based on pilot program feedback. The goal is to improve available enforcement resources and help victims of sexual harassment to connect with DOJ and HUD.
Third – the public awareness campaign, which has three major components: (1) a partnership package with relevant stakeholders; (2) launch of a social media campaign; and (3) Public Service Announcements [PSAs] run by the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys. This campaign is specifically designed to raise awareness, and make it easier for victims all over the country to find resources and report harassment.
This new focus on sexual harassment in housing at the federal level reinforces the importance of having specific, stand-alone policies relating to sexual harassment. Owners and operators of rental housing should enact such policies if they don’t already have them, and those who do have sexual harassment policies should review them to ensure they are adequate. Key points to remember regarding sexual harassment in housing include:
- Establish a Zero-Tolerance Policy Against Sexual Harassment
- Have a clear, written policy that sexual harassment of any kind will not be tolerated and will result in prompt disciplinary action;
- Offer examples of prohibited conduct, such as:
- Explicitly or implicitly suggesting sex in return for living in the community, receipt of services, or otherwise related to the terms and conditions of the tenancy;
- Suggesting or implying that failure to accept a date or sex would adversely affect a resident’s tenancy;
- Initiating unwanted physical contact, such as touching, grabbing or pinching;
- Making sexually suggestive or obscene comments, jokes or propositions; and
- Displaying sexually suggestive photos, cartoons, videos or objects.
- The policy should encourage anyone who feels they have been sexually harassed to file a complaint, and provide details on how to do so.
- Focus on Employee Hiring & Training
- Make sure all employees are trained with regard to the rules.
- Check references on new employees, including criminal record checks.
- Require all employees – from leasing agents to maintenance workers (full or part-time) to receive fair housing training, including the sexual harassment policies.
- Explain what sexual harassment is, including examples, and include a record of all training.
- Adopt rules specific to employees who may enter resident units.
- Don’t Ignore Sexual Harassment Complaints
- Investigate all complaints as soon as possible.
- Consult with your attorney and take detailed notes of all interviews.
- Interview all parties – both the accuser and the accused (don’t assume guilt).
- Never ignore such complaints.
- Take Prompt Action to Halt Harassment
- If you find that a sexual harassment complaint is justified, take action to end the harassment.
- If the harasser is an employee, take appropriate disciplinary action, such as reprimand, suspension or termination – whatever is warranted.
- Get legal advice if the complaint is about a vendor or other resident.
- Don’t Retaliate Against Anyone Complaining About Sexual Harassment. Under FHA, it is unlawful to “coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with” anyone who exercises their rights under fair housing law.