Study from MU professor calls attention to sexual harassment in housing
COLUMBIA – A recently-published pilot study by an MU law professor calls attention to landlords’ sexual harassment of their low-income female tenants.
In her report, Professor Rigel Oliveri called the issue “overlooked” and stated, “there have been no reliable empirical studies about the nature and prevalence of sexual harassment in housing.”
Ten of the 100 low-income women Oliveri surveyed in 2010 for the research “had experienced actionable sexual harassment by their landlords,” she stated in the study.
All but one of the 10 women belonged to a racial minority.
Most of the women did not have rental assistance when they were harassed. Lengthy waitlists can make assistance unattainable in the short term, Oliveri said. The women did not live in public housing when they were harassed.
The women tended to be in their twenties when they were harassed, Oliveri found. Meanwhile, the average estimated age of their landlords was 50, indicating a substantial age gap.
According to Oliveri, being young made the women even more vulnerable.
“They were really fending for themselves,” she said. “For anybody to think back on what it’s like to be in your early twenties, if that’s a distant time for you, that’s not a time when you have tons of resources, usually, especially if you’re on your own and not living with family and not having a lot of other support.”
The women who were sexually harassed had landlords who operated and owned the property.
For most of the 10 women, the landlords asked to exchange sex for rent. Harassment also included unwanted touching, indecent exposure and home invasion, Oliveri found.
Although Oliveri surveyed women in Columbia, the women said the harassment happened when they lived elsewhere.
The women who faced harassment often stayed silent so as not to risk losing their housing, she reported. They also often did not know who to tell.
As an attorney, Oliveri and her colleagues heard similar stories.
“I felt like we’d kind of stumbled into some crazy place where this was happening and no one else seemed to know about it,” she said.
Kalila Jackson is the senior staff attorney at the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council. She represents people who come to the Council with complaints of housing discrimination. Jackson is aware of Oliveri’s research.
“Unfortunately her study is remarkable because it affirms the lived experience of many of the clients that I serve,” Jackson said.
Harassment by landlords is often an aspect of the compromise poor women have made to be able support their families, Jackson said.
People facing sexual harassment by their landlord can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Department of Justice, Jackson said. They can also call Jackson’s agency.
As part of the solution to the issue, women should be educated on what rights they have, Jackson said.
The pilot study hints at how widespread the problem is, Oliveri stated in her report.
“If one in ten low-income women have experienced sexual harassment by their landlord, this means that there are likely hundreds of thousands of women who have experienced similar conduct,” Oliveri stated.
To address the issue of sexual harassment of low-income women by landlords, there must be changes, Oliveri said, adding low-income people should have more financial resources when it comes to housing, like subsidies.
“Without a subsidy, low-income women who have difficulty paying rent are easy prey for landlords who recognize the bind they are in,” Oliveri reported.
Oliveri said there needs to be more oversight of the relationship between landlords and tenants.
In her report, she suggested tools like creating local hotlines and awareness campaigns. Additionally, states could “require landlords to make mandatory disclosures to their tenants that clearly spell out the right to be free from sexual overtures by landlords.”
Oliveri said she hopes to do a more expansive study that includes more cities and more diverse populations. She is in the midst of getting funding. In her further research, Oliveri also wants to look at factors such as the housing market in different areas.