DOJ Announces Nationwide Initiative to Combat Sexual Harassment in Housing

This month, as the Justice Department recognizes the 50th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the nationwide rollout of an initiative aimed at increasing awareness and reporting of sexual harassment in housing. The initiative includes an interagency task force with HUD to combat sexual harassment in housing, an outreach toolkit, and a public awareness campaign.

Last fall, the Department announced an initiative to combat sexual harassment in housing and launched pilot programs in D.C. and Virginia. The initiative sought to increase the Department’s efforts to protect women from harassment by landlords, property managers, maintenance workers, security guards, and other employees and representatives of rental property owners. During the pilots, the Department developed and tested ways to better connect both with victims of sexual harassment in housing and with those organizations that victims may turn to first for help, including law enforcement, legal services providers, public housing authorities, sexual assault services providers, and shelters.

The two pilot programs generated an upswing in harassment reporting to the Department. Although the reports and investigations don’t always lead to enforcement actions, the Department said that the pilot program’s results—when extrapolated across the country—could lead to hundreds of new reports of sexual harassment in housing.

Because of these promising results, the Department is rolling out three major components to the initiative:

  1. The new HUD-DOJ Task Force to Combat Sexual Harassment in Housing will drive a shared strategy between the Department and HUD for combatting sexual harassment in housing across the country. It will focus on five key areas: continued data sharing and analysis, joint development of training, evaluation of public housing complaint mechanisms, coordination of public outreach and press strategy, and review of federal policies.
  2. To leverage the nationwide network of U.S. Attorney’s Offices, the outreach toolkit provides templates, guidance, and checklists based on feedback from the pilot program. It ultimately will amplify available enforcement resources and help victims of sexual harassment connect with the Department.
  3. The public awareness campaign has three major components: a partnership package with relevant stakeholders, launch of a social media campaign, and Public Service Announcements (PSAs) run by individual U.S. Attorney’s offices. The campaign is specifically designed to raise awareness and make it easier for victims all over the country to find resources and report harassment.

“Sexual harassment in housing is illegal, immoral, and unacceptable," Sessions said in a statement. “It is all too common today, as too many landlords, managers, and their employees attempt to prey on vulnerable women. We will not hesitate to pursue these predators and enforce the law. In October, I ordered a new initiative to bring more of these cases, and we have already won relief for 15 victims. Today we announce three new steps to make the initiative more effective and to win more cases. I want to thank the dedicated and committed professionals in our Civil Rights Division and our partners in the Department of Housing and Urban Development for their hard work in this effort. We will continue to aggressively pursue harassers, because everyone has a right to be safe in their home.”

“All discrimination stains the very fabric of our nation, but HUD is especially focused on protecting the right of everyone to feel safe and secure in their homes, free from unwanted sexual harassment,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson. “No person should have to tolerate unwanted sexual advances in order to keep a roof over his or her head. Part of our mission at HUD is to provide safe housing and we will remain diligent in this mission to protect those we serve. I look forward to working with Attorney General Sessions and the Department of Justice as part of this task force to bring an end to this type of discrimination.”

For information on how to prevent sexual harassment from occurring at your community, you can download the recording of our recent webinar “How to Reduce the Risk of Sexual Harassment Claims,” here.