Sex For Rent – Reports of Landlord Sexual Harassment Rise Amid The COVID-19 Pandemic
There has always been an imbalance of power in the landlord-tenant relationship. Sexual harassment of a tenant by their landlord is not a new phenomenon. Although low-income women have been particularly vulnerable to a landlord’s lecherous and illegal conduct – no tenant is safe, especially now when hundreds of thousands of renters have recently lost their jobs and are under extreme financial distress.
Landlords who coerce their tenants into “sex-for-rent” arrangements existed before the coronavirus, but the current pandemic has created more tenants than ever that are under a financial hardship, producing a greater opportunity for these landlords to take advantage of cash-strapped tenants.
To complicate matters even more, shelter-in-place orders mean that many vulnerable tenants have no escape from the pressures of their predatory landlord and feel captive to their situation. While tenants have a justified fear of their landlord retaliating against them for not giving into their illegal sexual demands, new emergency laws have been adopted to help protect tenants stay in their homes during the pandemic if they cannot pay their rent.
Because landlords that sexually harass tenants are typically serial offenders that were engaging in this unlawful behavior before the pandemic, tenants should know what conduct is considered illegal and what they can do about it if they are feeling sexually pressured, intimidated, and harassed at any time during their tenancy.
Sexual harassment of tenants is illegal under Federal and State law. If you have been the target of sexual misconduct or inappropriate statements by your landlord, or requests for sexual acts in lieu of rent, call Tobener Ravenscroft LLP to speak to a tenant rights attorney for free. Our offices remain remotely-open during COVID and we are available to take your confidential call at 415-504-2165.
When Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state-wide shelter-in-place for the state in March, courts responded accordingly and began limiting their operations. Currently, California courts are not issuing unlawful detainer summons for new filings, and matters that were filed before the emergency order have been continued for several months. This means that any threat by your landlord to evict you for not paying your rent has very little bite to it. Tenants should not give into their landlord’s illegal sexual demands under their empty threats of immediate eviction.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many tenants have lost their job, have had hours reduced, have lost their small business, or have incurred medical expenses due to the coronavirus and are no longer able to pay their rent. This situation has contributed to the increase in tenants being pressured and coerced into “sex-for-rent” agreements. However, in addition to the laws that make sexual harassment of a tenant illegal in the first place, the State of California and many cities and counties in the Bay Area have adopted emergency ordinances that give tenants the ability to defer their rent payment if they have suffered a financial impact related to the coronavirus. The emergency laws also prohibit landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent under these circumstances. While this does not necessarily stop your landlord from pressuring you for sexual favors in exchange for rent, and the deferred rent must be paid back after the emergency ordinance is lifted, tenants should know that evictions right now are at a standstill and likely will be for many months after the emergency is no longer in effect. Because of this reality, tenants should be empowered to know that landlords cannot hold the threat of eviction over their tenants’ heads in order to force them to comply with their illegal sexual demands. If you are a tenant that cannot pay rent during the pandemic, read our step-by-step guide to learn how to stay housed.
Because of shelter-in-place orders, many tenants feel captive in their homes and that they have no escape from their landlord’s unwanted sexual demands and advances. Tenants should know that they do not have to let their landlord into their unit during shelter-in-place orders. Generally, a landlord who wants to enter a tenant’s apartment must provide the tenant with a written notice at least twenty-four hours in advance of when they would like to enter. Cal. Civil Code § 1954. The notice must contain the date, approximate time, and the legitimate purpose for entry (e.g. to make repairs, show the unit for rent, or have a contractor give an estimate). Id. While this is still the law, because we are under shelter-in-place orders and must comply with social distancing rules, there is likely no legal reason that your landlord can claim to enter your unit right now, even with an advanced written notice. If there is no legitimate reason for entry, you can prohibit your landlord from entering your unit until the emergency order to shelter-in-place is no longer in effect.
Some local jurisdictions, such as San Francisco, have adopted laws to specifically address landlord entry issues during the pandemic. While shelter-in-place is in effect in San Francisco, under order of the City’s Department of Public Health, repairs and maintenance must be put on hold unless the project is essential to safety, security, or habitability. Also, if a San Francisco landlord wants to show your unit for rent or for sale, as long as you are still residing in the unit they may only show the property virtually – in-person showings are not allowed.
At any time during your tenancy, not just during the pandemic, if your landlord enters your home without your permission, you can call the police.
Tenants should speak with a tenant rights attorney by calling Tobener Ravenscroft LLP to find out if their city or county has adopted laws regarding landlord entry during shelter-in-place.
Sexual harassment is prohibited by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and the Unruh Civil Rights Act. Sexual harassment is not only unwanted physical touching but can be visual or verbal sexual contact or conduct. Some common sexual harassment situations tenants experience include:
- Sexual assault;
- Unwanted touching such as hugging, kissing, groping, and patting;
- Pressure for sex or sexual favors in exchange for rent, repairs, or access to housing amenities;
- Inappropriate sexual comments, particularly about the tenant’s body;
- Unwelcome sexual jokes;
- Lewd pictures, drawings and/or notes; or
- Repeated requests to go out on a date or being constantly hit on.
There are two categories of sexual harassment: quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile environment sexual harassment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment is when your landlord requires you to engage in unwanted sexual conduct as a condition to obtaining or maintaining your housing. Some examples of quid pro quo harassment are when a landlord demands sexual favors from you in exchange for not raising your rent, threatens to evict you if you do not have sex with them, or says they will only fix your heater if you give them a nude photo of yourself. Often, a landlord that sexually harasses a tenant may not use such overt demands for fear of being caught. Instead they may make statements such as “if you do me some personal favors, I will forgive your rent” or “if you help me out (with a suggestive wink or sexual body language), I can help you out.”
Hostile environment sexual harassment is when your landlord engages in sexual behavior that is severe and pervasive enough that it results in a hostile, intimidating, offensive, or undesirable environment. Your landlord does not condition your housing on sexual conduct, but your housing is negatively impacted by their unwanted sexual behavior. Your landlord repeatedly asking you about your sex life, making comments about your body, texting you pictures of their private body parts, or touching you in appropriately are forms of harassment that create a hostile environment.
Because sexual harassment is an abuse of power, it is not always about sexual desire and can also be an expression of hate and aggression toward a particular group. For example, a landlord’s frequent and severely inappropriate comments about women as a gender may be a form of sexual harassment that creates a hostile environment for a tenant.
It is not just the person you write your rent check to each month that can be guilty of sexual harassment. Property owners, property managers, employees of the landlord such as maintenance workers, and anyone involved in providing housing services can also be predators found liable for sexual harassment.
Although the majority of the victims of landlord sexual harassment are women, all tenants are susceptible to this predatory conduct, including men. And, harassers are not always men, but can be women. Further, the parties involved do not have to be of the opposite sex for it to be sexual harassment – women can harass other women, and men can harass other men.
Tenants that are sexually harassed by their landlord fear that they will be retaliated against if they do not give into the illegal demands. However, after a tenant has asserted a legal right, like their right to not be sexually harassed, it is against the law for the landlord to retaliate against them.
Some acts that a landlord is prohibited from doing in retaliation for a tenant not complying with their sexual requests are the following:
- Attempting to or actually evicting the tenant.
- Increasing the tenant’s rent.
- Refusing to conduct repairs or maintenance at the tenant’s unit.
- Taking away the tenant’s housing amenities, or prohibiting use of any housing facilities or services.
- Shutting off the tenant’s utilities.
- Verbally or physically threatening or intimidating the tenant.
Retaliation is a serious offense. Tenants should read our guide on how to stop landlord retaliation to learn more about their rights and options.
Tenants often find themselves in a situation where it is their word against their landlord’s. If you are a victim of sexual harassment, it is important for you to document your landlord’s behavior. Get names and phone numbers of witnesses, keep a journal detailing the incidences, tell your friends and family about what is happening, and preserve any retaliatory notices and lewd notes/drawings/pictures that your landlord may have sent to you. Also, other documentation such as police reports, restraining orders, and medical or psychological records will aid in your pursuing your landlord later. A tenant rights lawyer at Tobener Ravenscroft can give you more guidance on the best way to document your situation.
A tenant can sue their landlord for damages for sexual harassment under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) or the Unruh Civil Rights Act. Brown v. Smith, 55 Cal. App. 4th 767 (1997) and Cal. Civil Code § 51 et seq.
To learn more about what a tenant must show in order to have a successful claim for sexual harassment under these laws and what damages a tenant may recover, tenants should read our Landlord Sexual Harassment legal guide or call us at 415-504-2165.
Because tenants have a limited time under the law to make a sexual harassment claim against their landlord, as well as limited time to bring any related claim, tenants should call Tobener Ravenscroft LLP to speak to a tenant sexual harassment attorney to discuss their rights and legal options.