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When Gail Savage’s landlord messaged asking her if she would “stay all night” with him, she assumed he’d texted the wrong number.
“I was like, He probably meant to send that to his girlfriend,” Savage, 29, told BuzzFeed News.
A single mom to 2-year-old son Salem, Savage lost her job working as a bartender at a popular Indianapolis cocktail bar and her gigs working as a burlesque performer when the state shutdown occurred on March 16. She’d let her landlord know and they’d been texting about how she was waiting for the federal stimulus check to arrive to pay her April rent, when he suddenly inquired if she could get a ride and “stay all night” with him.
“I don’t know if you meant to send that to me,” she replied.
“I did,” he wrote back, in text messages seen by BuzzFeed News.
Three times she wrote back that she didn’t understand.
“Are you asking me in a sexual way?” she texted.
“Yes,” her landlord replied.
“The second I figured out it was happening, it was the craziest thing: I put Salem in his car seat and walked out the door,” said Savage. “I was like, I don’t know where I’m going, but I can’t stay. I was scared.”
Landlords have always harassed some tenants for sex, usually women in vulnerable low-income communities, such as undocumented immigrants or trans women. But with 33 million people filing for unemployment since the coronavirus pandemic began — and 20% of renters not paying May rent before the 6th — advocates say more tenants are vulnerable and at risk of harassment than ever before.
“If you think about #MeToo and attention to sexual harassment and employment, that affected women of all economic classes,” Sandra Park, senior attorney at ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, told BuzzFeed News. “This issue has always targeted low-income women particularly, but given the pandemic and widespread loss of jobs, I do wonder whether we will see more persuasive sexual harassment in housing than we have seen previously … because it may well end up targeting women from different economic classes.”
The National Fair Housing Alliance surveyed its 80 fair housing groups across the country and found 13% were seeing an uptick in sexual harassment complaints.
The Department of Justice has said it is looking into reports of housing providers trying to exploit the COVID-19 crisis to sexually harass tenants, which is a crime under the federal Fair Housing Act.
“It is always despicable to exploit vulnerabilities by sexually harassing those in need of housing,” said US Attorney for Vermont Christina Nolan, one of the leaders of the DOJ response, in a statement. “Doing so during a global pandemic, when so many are struggling just to make ends meet, is particularly abhorrent.”
“This conduct will not be tolerated,” said Nolan, “and they will be held accountable.”
After having first reported in April that some advocates were seeing an increase in complaints of landlords pressuring tenants for sex when they could not afford rent due to the coronavirus pandemic, BuzzFeed News was contacted by multiple readers with their own stories of intimidation.
One was Jerry Miles, a 20-year-old college student in Indianapolis who was desperate for a place to live when he found a room in February in a shared house. Prior to that, Miles had temporarily been staying with a family friend after his father was jailed.
But on March 26, as the coronavirus pandemic prompted rolling government shutdowns, his boss informed him that his hours working as a valet would probably drop from 35 a week to none. Miles reached out to his new landlord informing him of the situation. They agreed that when his $1,200 stimulus check came from the government, he would give $1,000 to his landlord to cover two months of rent upfront.
On April 10, the landlord pulled up in front of Miles’ home, just as Miles was heading off to do deliveries for Postmates. The landlord asked where the rent money was. Miles replied that he didn’t have it yet and that he was still waiting for the stimulus check. That’s when, according to Miles, the landlord said he had to pay the rent because Miles surely did not want the landlord to come over and rape him.
In shock, Miles replied no, he said. His landlord then said he would only be able to last five minutes, so he’d have to bring friends, insinuating they would gang-rape him. According to Miles, his landlord told him he and his friends would have to do it every day until the debt was paid, and that Miles should consider prostituting himself. Miles said he laughed awkwardly and told the landlord the conversation made him uncomfortable. The landlord eventually drove away.
“It was really disgusting. I was beyond shocked,” said Miles. “I’ve never heard a landlord talk to somebody like that in my life.”
Immediately, Miles texted his best friend Mariah Nuñez, 18, asking if he could move in with her and her boyfriend. Messages between them show Miles describing the exact conversation to her moments after it happened, and Nuñez confirmed their authenticity to BuzzFeed News. Miles slept in Nuñez’s den for over a week, before finding a new apartment.
When contacted by BuzzFeed News, the landlord, who owns multiple properties in the area, denied making the threats to Miles. “That’s the most ludicrous thing. I’m kind of insulted,” said the landlord, whom BuzzFeed News is not naming because he has not been charged with a crime. He said the conversation was him just asking Miles, “How’s your rent coming? When can you expect to see some money?”
Miles chose not to contact authorities, but John Floreancig, general counsel at Indianapolis Legal Aid, encouraged tenants facing harassment to contact their local legal aid or fair housing organization for support.
In the last five weeks, his organization has received 3,700 calls from people, the majority of them tenants concerned with eviction. “Legally, there’s really nothing a landlord can do right now in terms of eviction issues,” said Floreancig, pointing out the eviction moratoriums around the country.
But the eviction moratoriums may also partly explain the rise in sexual harassment by landlords, according to advocates.
“I think we’ve seen a clear uptick in the harassment for two reasons,” said David Mitchell from Detroit Eviction Defense, a tenants’ rights group in Michigan. “One, they’re not getting their money, and two, they legally can’t do anything about it.”
“It’s a power relationship, and they usually have power to do whatever they want,” said Mitchell. “Because that’s been limited, increasingly they’re wanting to be in a position of power, at least in some area of it.”
When Miles first met the landlord who harassed him, he was honest about his family history and explained how vulnerable his housing situation was at the time. “I explained my father was in jail, and if I was to lose my housing, I would really have nowhere else to go,” he said. “It could be a reason he said that.”
In New York City, a 29-year-old marketing employee said her landlord propositioned her at her apartment on Sunday, offering to “barter” a sexual arrangement to lower her rent.
The woman, who asked to remain anonymous as she intends to remain in her home, has lived in the three-bedroom apartment of a house in Astoria, Queens, for eight years. But when her roommates, who sublet from her, began suggesting they may move out, she decided to speak with her long-term landlord about using the $2,000 deposit paid when she first moved in to help offset this summer’s rent.
That’s when, she said, her landlord told her not to get mad before he then asked whether she had a boyfriend. She thought the question was odd, but she replied that she did not. He then started speaking about a “bartering” system they could arrange, telling her that he was bad at negotiating, she said. He then said if he were to do her a favor, did she not think she also owed him a favor?
“He was clearly referring to sexual favors,” she told BuzzFeed News.
The woman replied that she was not comfortable with that idea and that she would just drop off the full rent check as normal in his mailbox.
She estimates her landlord is at least 30 years older than her. Last year his wife died, and she attended the wake. “She must be rolling over in her grave because she was so sweet and what the hell is he doing?” said the tenant.
Before he left her home on Sunday, she said the landlord kept telling her to think about his request for a favor.
“I was freaked out,” the tenant said. “I put weights in front of my door to make sure he doesn’t come back.”
She immediately texted two of her best friends about it. “That was aggressively my [#MeToo] moment,” she wrote. “I’m crying. I’m like so creeped out.”
One of the friends, who has known the tenant over 13 years and used to live in that same apartment, confirmed that they immediately FaceTimed each other to talk about the incident. “She was crying hysterically,” the friend told BuzzFeed News.
But the tenant doesn’t want to leave the big, cheap apartment. A global pandemic is underway, and she’s spent eight years building her home there, even putting in new fixtures: “I don’t want to lose this apartment, but now I’m like, Goddamn it, why did you have to make it weird?”
She also doesn’t want to contact the police or other authorities as she fears there wouldn’t be enough evidence.
Jennie Stephens-Romero, supervising attorney of the housing team at Make the Road NYC, an advocacy group for immigrants and working communities, said people should still report landlords even if the harassment was verbal and not witnessed by others.
“It’s a little bit different now because housing court is mostly closed, but typically you could have a hearing, and it comes to credibility — people can testify and usually a judge would decide which witness is more credible,” said Stephens-Romero. “Even in a ‘he said, she said,’ there is not nothing you can do.”
Among her other advice: try to document any forms of harassment, if possible, such as taking video or recording a conversation; save copies of any texts or emails, and make multiple copies to share with a lawyer or friend; and keep any letters from a landlord or take photos of them.
Housing courts are also still having emergency hearings. “Right now it’s important to know that no one can be evicted, and there are still things tenants can do if they are harassed,” said Stephens-Romero.
Park from the ACLU said most housing providers, such as management companies or public housing associations, do not have procedures and policies in place to handle sexual harassment complaints. “In the housing arena, we are many decades behind the workplace in understanding how harassment happens and how to effectively address it,” said Park.
Experts also say that landlords who sexually harass their tenants are often serial offenders. ”Usually it’s not an isolated incident,” said Stephens-Romero from Make the Road NYC.
Savage, the bartender in Indianapolis, is hoping to pursue legal action against her landlord who owns multiple properties. “Nothing has been filed to date, but we are assisting her in understanding what her rights are under law,” Amy Nelson, the executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana, told BuzzFeed News.
But first, Savage had to remain in the home for nearly a month after her landlord harassed her. “How am I supposed to move out, with no money?” she asked. “That’s why he chose me to do this to.”
“He knows I don’t have a job. He knows I don’t have anywhere to go — he’s preying on me,” said Savage.
The landlord told BuzzFeed News the messages were “a joke” and “a misunderstanding.” He said he was texting with his ex-wife at the same time and meant to send the messages to her. “Something got confused, that’s all,” he said.
Savage was ultimately able to find some salvation. Immediately, a real estate agent friend found a two-bedroom with a backyard that costs $300 more but arranged to match it to her previous rent. A lawyer friend connected her to Fair Housing. Her bar dropped off groceries and supplies.
Socially and culturally, she is not as vulnerable as her landlord may have assumed.
“He picked the wrong person because I’m equipped for this,” said Savage. “I’m not going to allow him to do this to me or anyone else.”
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