TENANTS PUSHING LEGAL CASE
AGAINST HARASSERS AT HOME

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Wendy had just moved into her Manhattan studio apartment when the inappropriate comments began. The building’s super would tell her she was attractive, she said, or that a certain skirt made her look sexy. When she asked him to paint her apartment, she recalls, he showed up at 6 a.m., called her his “favorite tenant,” and then tried to kiss her on the lips.

Apparently, she wasn’t his only target. Upon hearing her story, other women in the building recounted similar interactions. Together, they complained to the owner of the building. When that didn’t work, they tried the police and even their City Council member. But now, six years later, the super is still working on site.

“I feel uncomfortable going in and out of the building because I never know when I’m going to run into him,” said Wendy. “Everyone tells you, ‘You have a nice apartment at a good rate. You should expect this kind of thing.’”

Recently, however, she found an advocate: the Fair Housing Justice Center, a program of the housing group HELP USA that serves as a one-stop-shop for tenants fighting discrimination. Since it opened in Manhattan last year, the group has been staffing up and taking on a wide range of cases, a handful of which have dealt with sexual harassment.

The Fair Housing Justice Center recently filed one such suit in U.S. District Court. According to the Aug. 14 complaint, Jerry Jacobs, a Tribeca landlord, propositioned two female tenants, promising them lower rent if they agreed to sexual encounters.

Jacobs allegedly told Kathryn Smith, 26, that he would cut her rent in half if she provided him with “company” once a week. Several months later, the suit claims, Jacobs struck again, telling Jennifer Dunlap, 24, a prospective tenant, that she could live rent-free if she performed “oral sex and touching.”

Both women refused and were brought together by the Center to file a joint suit, working with Latham & Watkins LLP. Mark Axinn, an attorney for Jerry Jacobs and 358 Broadway LLC said his clients were “shocked by the allegations” and “don’t believe there’s any truth” to them. “We intend to defend against them vigorously,” he said.

Diane Houk, executive director of the Center, said sexual discrimination in housing is neither new nor limited to New York, but does tend to happen more in cities with many renters and a shortage of affordable housing. In fact, City Limits Magazine documented the phenomenon in 1986 with a cover story called “Unreasonable Access” that profiled several women fighting back against unscrupulous supers and landlords. “Women who are lower income are more at risk because they are less able financially to move out of the housing,” said Houk, “and the landlords know that.”

Much of the legal framework for sexual harassment in housing is borrowed from groundbreaking employment discrimination cases of the 1970s and 80s. Yet the abuse can feel quite different, explains Rigel Oliveri, who worked with Houk in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and now teaches at the University of Missouri School of Law.

“Usually at a job, there’s a point of contact,” Oliveri said, “a person to talk to if you’re having problems.” Also, she said, harassment in the home can be more threatening. “It’s one thing if they walk by your cubicle,” she said, “ and another thing if you wake up and they’re standing over your bed” — a scenario experienced by a plaintiff she represented.

Harassment in either arena tends to take one of two forms. In some cases, the victim is subjected to a “sexually hostile” work or living environment as a result of inappropriate comments or touching. In other cases, the harassment is rendered as a “quid pro quo” — the victim is offered something in exchange for sexual favors.

Cases of sexual discrimination in housing can be hard to document. Oliveri recommends that women keep detailed notes and records of all correspondence, and “communicate [to the landlord] in no uncertain terms that this is unacceptable.” The problem, she said, is that many women don’t feel empowered to speak up.

Emily Martin, deputy director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, said sexual harassment in the home is just starting to get the attention it deserves. She hopes groups like the ACLU and Fair Housing Justice Center can be a resource to women in New York who don’t yet know their rights.

“It’s definitely a challenge when people don’t have words to apply to a problem,” she said. “When you don’t have a way to explain what’s happening to you, it makes it much more difficult to respond.”

Names have been changed at sources’ request to protect identity.

– Cassi Feldman