Angelina M. Austin is an associate attorney with Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer, APC. Her practice focuses on all aspects of employment law, personal injury, and civil rights litigation. Credit: GICCB

Over the past several years, the various casting couches, restaurant-kitchen storerooms, governors’ mansions and corporate boardrooms of high-profile moguls have garnered well-deserved notoriety for incidents of sexual harassment and predation.  

But there is another, more insidious, but equally longstanding form of sexual harassment — also being enacted on couches and in kitchens — that hasn’t garnered the attention it deserves: sexual harassment by landlords. 

“Insidious is absolutely the right word,” said Angelina Austin, an attorney at the 44-year-old Oakland law firm of Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer. “It’s a much more private experience. It happens in your home, the one place you’re supposed to feel safe. In the workplace, you have coworkers and people around, so it’s more likely someone will notice. In a house or apartment, you don’t have that social protection.” 

“Low-income women are easy prey for landlords who seek to exploit them for sex.”

2018 study by the University of Missouri School of Law

Austin, the newest attorney at Gwilliam Ivary and its first Black attorney, would know. Her own mother, who raised her children in public housing —aka “the projects”— was twice the victim of landlord sexual harassment. “It’s a highly vulnerable population: mothers receiving public housing.” 

That was precisely the conclusion of Rigel Oliveri, the lead author of a 2018 study conducted by the University of Missouri School of Law that sought to quantify this under-studied form of discrimination. “Low-income women are easy prey for landlords who seek to exploit them for sex,” Oliveri wrote. Ten percent of low-income women in the study reported being sexually harassed by their landlords. The harassment included lewd comments, home invasions, indecent exposure, requests for nude photos and offers of leases and rent reductions in exchange for sex. 

The outpouring of reports underscores the vulnerability that women in general, and mothers in particular, face in the housing market. Women and mothers often find themselves in precarious situations: they may be fleeing a violent partner, or are undocumented, or are struggling financially due to divorce or low wages. “Most of the cases we hear about are among heteronormative women,”  Austin said. “What makes this even more egregious is that if the woman has children, (the harassment is) imperiling the housing of the children, or an aged parent, or someone in their care.” 

Austin notes that this form of harassment is by no means limited to heteronormative women. It’s also an all-too-familiar scenario for the LGBTQ community and sex workers. “It is, hands down, a very serious issue for sex workers.”  

What brings additional vulnerability are the high housing costs common to Oakland and the Bay Area. 

There’s federal protection

Although less well known than workplace violations, protections are enshrined in federal law — and have been for decades. “The law parallels those around workplace discrimination,” Austin said.  

At the state level, the Fair Employment Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status. California has expanded those categories to include discrimination based on age, ancestry, marital status, sexual orientation, color, and source of income. Further protections in California are granted through the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by all businesses in the state, including those providing housing and accommodation.  

The Fair Housing Act distinguishes two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile environment sexual harassment. “Harassment can include a wide variety of behaviors,” Austin said. “Words, touching, unwanted sexual advances, requesting favors, placing terms or conditions — pretty much everything up to an actual sexual assault.” 

“It can be little things, too, like making sexual jokes you’re not comfortable with, making remarks about your appearance, or questions about being LGBTQ. It can be your over-touchers and back-rubbers, or it can be someone coming to your door and saying lewd things to you. Much of it has to do with what feels to you like harassment. It’s civil litigation, not criminal litigation, so the plaintiff brings the accusation.”  

As a side note, the perpetrator doesn’t have to be the landlord. It can also be a third party acting as an agent of the landlord, like a plumber, property manager or contractor. “If it’s someone working for the landlord, the landlord can be held liable.” 

If people think they have a case, “I hope they would come to us,” Austin said. “People need to know state laws will protect you.”  

Taking action against sexual harassment

The first step for anyone considering legal action is to report the harassment to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, a division of the California Civil Rights Department. “If the behavior is really bad, or if it’s continuing and you feel in danger, file a claim,” Austin said. A formal complaint with the DFEH is prerequisite to any civil lawsuit.  

Too frequently, however, the victimized party stays silent. “People are used to workplace reporting protocols and are very aware of the protections,” Austin said. “They’ve likely been to workshops or received information from the HR department. That doesn’t happen with housing. Housing has an invisibility factor. 

“There’s also more of a shame factor with housing,” she continued. “You never know when someone has internalized the harassment and might be blaming themselves. Or they’re concerned it will be another ‘he said, she said’ situation.” 

That’s why you need proof, she says. “Send a letter asking the person to stop the behavior. Save all email messages and texts. Write things down.”  

Thanks to increasing awareness of the issue, more cases are being filed — and won. Case in point: In 2012 the Justice Department ordered Bakersfield rental properties manager Rawland Leon Sorensen to pay more than $2 million in monetary damages and civil penalties to settle an FHA lawsuit alleging that he sexually harassed women tenants and prospective tenants. It was the largest monetary settlement ever agreed to in a sexual harassment suit brought by the Justice Department under the FHA.  

Wins like this serve to shine a light on the issue, giving victims more encouragement to come forward and break their silence. “That’s what really needs to change — coming out from the shadows,” Austin said. “When victims aren’t seen, they aren’t heard.  

“I really want them to be heard.”