Provisions on sexual harassment in housing, often part of anti-discrimination laws, are generally enforced through national human rights commissions or the civil courts. Moreover, NGOs are often involved in assisting and supporting victims through the process of documenting and initiating claims.
Canada: British Columbia’s Human Rights Tribunal awarded a female tenant 19,422 Canadian dollars for ongoing sexual harassment by her landlord. The court found that improper gifts and comments, intrusion into the tenant’s personal life, and an incident of groping constituted sexual harassment. The Court also required the landlord to pay legal expenses, damages for injury to dignity, feelings and self respect, and improper conduct during the tribunal hearing. The Court used a “knowledge” standard for the sexual harassment offense, holding him liable because he “knew or should have known” that his conduct constituted sexual harassment. See: MacGarvie v. Friedmann, 2009 BCHRT47 (Feb. 2, 2009); Carlito Pablo, B.C. Human Rights Tribunal Favours Tenant in Sexual Harassment Case, Straight.com
CASE STUDY – The United States Fair Housing Act
The United States has an extensive enforcement regime related to sexual harassment in housing under its Fair Housing Act (42 USC secs.3601-3691). The legislation prohibits sexual harassment in housing, places duties on property managers to prevent harassment, and designates an enforcement agency. The law and judicial opinions interpreting the law substantially follow the principles that have developed over time in workplace sexual harassment cases. (See: New York v. Merlino, 694 F. Supp. 1101 (S.D.N.Y. 1998)) Women can file a complaint with either the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development or with a local fair housing agency and cases will be investigated at no cost to the victim. The agencies will generally attempt to negotiate a settlement but may file a claim in court if necessary. Women may also file a private suit in federal court, with their own legal representation. Moreover, many local communities have civil society groups that advocate for fair housing and will provide assistance to women who are confronted with sexual harassment. (See: US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, Policy Guidance, 2008) In some instances, women may also wish to file a criminal complaint, especially if they are assisted by an advocacy organization. Some police departments will assist with investigation and evidence gathering in sexual harassment cases and may even file criminal charges under state law. (Fair Housing Advocates Association, Sexual Harassment Laws) The Fair Housing Act also protects women from retaliation. The law makes it illegal for a property owner/manager to “coerce, intimidate, threaten, or…deny housing, increase rent, withhold maintenance or similar services, harass, sue, or evict because an individual filed a housing discrimination complaint, cooperated with a housing discrimination investigation, or otherwise exercised his or her legal rights under the Act.” (US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, Policy Guidance, 2008) U.S. law makes this type of retaliatory action a separate basis for legal action against the property owner. Depending on the facts, property managers can be held directly liable for their behavior and vicariously liable for the acts of their employees and agents and may also beheld liable for the harassing behavior of tenants in some cases. (US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, Policy Guidance, 2008.)
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the settlement of a sexual harassment in housing case against a California landlord who had sexually harassed more than 25 tenants over a thirty year period. The settlement is the largest ever under the Fair Housing Act and requires the landlord to pay $2.13 million in damages and civil penalties. The government brought a complaint against the landlord alleging that he had made unwelcome sexual comments and advances, exposed himself to women tenants, touched women without their consent, had granted and denied housing benefits based on sex, and had taken adverse action against women who refused his advances. See: California landlord settles sexual harassment suit for $2.13 million, Sept. 11, 2012, U.S. Department of Justice.
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