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How We Can Make Public Housing Safe From Sexual Harassment

September 25, 2019, 7:09 PM UTC
The D.C. Housing Authority is announcing plans to redevelop and demolish public housing complexes - about 2,600 units within 14 properties including Greenleaf Gardens seen July 01, 2019 in Washington, DC.
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 1: The D.C. Housing Authority is announcing plans to redevelop and demolish public housing complexes - about 2,600 units within 14 properties including Greenleaf Gardens seen July 01, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Katherine Frey—The Washington Post via Getty Images

For most people, home is where we feel the safest. It’s where we plan our future, entertain family and friends, raise our kids, and retreat to at the end of a stressful day. But for individuals who experience sexual harassment where they live, this sanctuary can become a place of fear.

In the past two years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and its state and local fair housing partners received more than 450 complaints alleging sexual harassment. These numbers are more than statistics; they represent individuals who are subjected to degrading and humiliating treatment by people who have the power to affect their housing stability. 

This is an issue I can personally identify with. When I was a young girl, my mother and I lived in a public housing development in Crystal City, Texas, where one of the property’s maintenance men made frequent and blatant sexual advances toward her.

On one occasion, after my mother had turned him down yet again, I heard him say, “Well, if not you, what about your daughter?” The next thing I knew, she had slapped him and told him that if he came back she would crush his skull and knees with a baseball bat. I played softball, so there was always a baseball bat around.

At HUD, we don’t use baseball bats, we use the law. The agency’s efforts to fight sexual harassment in housing employs every weapon we have at our disposal, including working with the Justice Department through an interagency task force that recently launched a public awareness campaign that makes it easier for victims throughout the nation to find resources and report harassment.

HUD also works with community-based fair housing groups to combat sexual harassment, incorporating many of their enforcement techniques into our efforts. For example, we’ve learned that using social media platforms can advance the national discussion around the prevalence of this form of discrimination and the importance of addressing it.

And our efforts are working. HUD and its partner organizations obtained over $1 million in relief for 121 survivors and victims’ funds over the past two years. Additionally, the Justice Department has filed 11 lawsuits alleging sexual harassment in housing since the joint HUD/Justice Department initiative was launched.

While we’ve seen some success in our fight against this form of housing discrimination, more needs to be done. I encourage landlords, property managers, and individuals in maintenance support roles to meet their responsibility to adhere to federal housing laws. HUD offers free training, both in-person across the country and online, about the Fair Housing Act’s requirements. Housing providers can also combat this form of discrimination by learning about what behaviors constitute harassment and educating their staff about it.

I would also encourage the housing industry, particularly owners of federally financed housing developments, to use their considerable resources to stand with HUD and the Justice Department against the bad actors who prey on those who are most vulnerable. This includes spreading the word to other housing providers and industry members about the agencies’ sexual harassment initiative, the importance of reducing the incidents of harassment, and how addressing harassment makes good business sense.

Sexual harassment in housing will continue to be a problem until landlords and property owners understand that they have a vested interest in creating safe, protected living environments. It’s not a choice; it’s the law. No one should have to endure harassment and mistreatment in order to keep a roof over their head. 

Anna María Farías is the assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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