Commentary: Prevent harassment: Know your fair housing rights

By Joseph J. DeFelice

Two women were forced to move when an apartment maintenance worker told them they could exchange sex for rent.

A landlord entered a woman’s apartment uninvited and on one occasion the woman awoke to find him in her bedroom, on her bed. Another woman was threatened with eviction if she didn’t have sex with her landlord.

Nearby in Virginia, a female tenant alleged that a male resident harassed her with unwelcome and unsolicited advances, made suggestive comments, and followed her around the independent living facility where she lived. She reported the incidents to property management to no avail.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sees these kind of sexual harassment complaints far too often.

Joseph J. DeFelice

As the HUD Mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator, I know when these stories come into our office, we take action. No one should have to endure sexual harassment and degrading treatment in order to keep a roof over his or her head.

We helped the female tenant receive $37,000 in compensation. Not only did the renter receive a monetary settlement, but the owners of the complex were required to adopt a sexual harassment policy and develop procedures for responding to tenant complaints, and its staff had to attend fair housing training.

Each April HUD observes Fair Housing Month marking the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or family status. “Call HUD, Because Sexual Harassment in Housing is Illegal” is the Fair Housing Month 2020 theme, and  the goal is to increase efforts to better educate the public on what constitutes sexual harassment and what to do/who to contact if they experience it.

Last year, HUD and the Justice Department launched a nationwide joint initiative to combat sexual harassment in housing by increasing awareness of the issue and encouraging the reporting of harassment.

HUD also launched a special campaign and training initiative to help protect people from harassment by landlords, property managers, and maintenance workers in HUD-assisted housing. HUD and its partner organizations obtained over $1 million in relief for nearly 130 survivors and victims’ funds over the past two years.

We know that this outreach works. We’ve heard stories from some women who said they were unaware this kind of harassment was illegal and that they could go to HUD for help.

HUD’s Region III remains committed to helping all those who face housing discrimination because of how they look, where they come from, their sex, religion, family status or disability, as well as those being threatened with eviction because they are unaware of their fair housing rights. In 2019, more than 2,100 fair housing complaints were filed in our region alone. So far this year, over 1,000 individuals believe they have been a victim of housing discrimination and have filed a complaint.

HUD continues to work for housing free from discrimination every day. Persons who believe they have experienced housing discrimination may file a complaint of discrimination by contacting HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at 800-669-9777 or visiting How to File a Complaint on HUD’s website at Materials and assistance are available for persons with limited English proficiency. Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing may contact the Department using the Federal Relay Service at 800-877-8339.

Joe DeFelice is regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Mid-Atlantic region that includes Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.