How to Respond to Sexual and Other Discriminatory Harassment Complaints
Sexual harassment in housing is illegal, as is harassment based on race, color, religion, national origin, familial status, or disability. The Fair Housing Act prohibits harassment, retaliation, and other types of discrimination based on these protected characteristics.
Unfortunately, given the imbalance of economic power between owner and resident in low-income housing, sexual harassment won’t go away. The need for housing is a basic human need, and there are bad actors who will exploit that need and federal programs that attempt to meet it by threatening to deny housing for victims if they don’t submit to sexual demands.
Owners Pay Price
On March 18, HUD charged a St. Louis area owner with discrimination for allegedly subjecting a female tenant to sexual harassment, including requests for sexual favors in exchange for reduced rent, and discriminatory statements based on sex [HUD v. Ukejnovic, FHEO Nos. 07-19-2061-8]. Demetria L. McCain, HUD’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, stated, “No one should have to submit to unwelcome sexual advances or tolerate sexual harassment to keep their home, a place where a person should feel safest. She further emphasized that the charge” sends a clear message to all landlords that HUD is committed to taking action against landlords whose behavior violates the Fair Housing Act.”
Harassment doesn’t originate only with owners. Owners can be liable for sexual and other harassment at their site if the harassment is committed by any employee or agent and/or the owner fails to take actions within its power to stop harassment by employees or agents. For example, in 2020, the Justice Department settled a sexual harassment case against Virginia owners [U.S. v. Price, Civil Action No. 5:20-cv-00062]. The government alleged the manager made unwelcome sexual comments and advances toward female tenants, offering housing benefits in exchange for sexual acts, and took or threatened to take adverse action against women who refused his sexual demands. The owners were named as defendants in the lawsuit because they are owners of properties at which the discriminatory conduct took place and the manager was acting as their agent when he engaged in the illegal acts.
Under the consent decree, the defendants paid $330,000 to compensate eight victims of discrimination already identified by the Justice Department, together with any additional individuals who have been harmed by defendants’ discriminatory conduct. In addition, the owners and all their employees had to undertake independent professional fair housing training.
Take 4 Steps for Addressing Complaints
Owners and supervisors need to be able to respond effectively when a resident accuses a staff member of harassment. We’ll go over how you can establish a consistent and effective system for receiving and addressing complaints and other evidence of harassment. By doing so, you can show victims that you take harassment complaints seriously and make sure these complaints are appropriately addressed.
Set and share written anti-harassment policies and procedures. You should make sure these policies and procedures provide multiple ways for applicants, residents, and staff to easily and safely submit a complaint such as by phone, email, online, or in person. In addition, this information should be effectively communicated to applicants and resident because an owner can’t stop harassment it doesn’t know about or be able to mitigate liability by addressing the problems quickly.
You can establish strong and clear anti-harassment policies in your employee code of conduct. It can explicitly prohibit harassment against applicants and residents and provide for disciplinary actions for harassment or failure to respond appropriately to harassment complaints.
In addition, you can also create and post policy statements (in all appropriate languages) that make clear that sexual and other discriminatory harassment, as well as retaliation for reporting it, are prohibited. You can give every applicant and resident a package containing a copy of the anti-harassment policy as well as information about how to report harassment.
Designate a complaint coordinator. Among your staff, you should designate a complaint coordinator who is responsible for ensuring complaints are appropriately handled and processed quickly. This individual will ensure that every complaint of harassment is properly addressed, regardless of who receives it. This person can also train staff members to gather basic information if they get a complaint or otherwise learn of harassment, including:
- Victim name and contact information for follow up;
- Summary of what happened (tell victim to save evidence, such as texts, photos, voicemail, letters, notes, journals, etc.);
- Name of harasser(s), witness(es), and other possible victims, if known; and
- Date(s), time(s), and location(s) of harassment.
The complaint coordinator can also keep a case management file to identify staff or residents named in complaints, and document any corrective actions taken. However, the person carrying out the investigation must be completely impartial and not related to or in any other special relationship with either the accuser or accused.
That’s why managers shouldn’t investigate subordinates and vice versa. Individuals also shouldn’t investigate if they have a history of conﬂict with one of the parties. Nor should the investigators have a personal or professional stake in the outcome, such as managers determined to use the investigation to cover up wrongdoing committed by their personnel.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to ﬁnd objective and impartial investigators, especially at small sites where everyone knows one another and may be affected by the outcome of the investigation. And even if there are objective people available, they may not be qualified to investigate a sexual harassment complaint. As a result, the complaint coordinator should consider procuring the services of an external qualified investigator to investigate tenant sexual harassment complaints at site.
It’s critically important that the investigator not only is fair, impartial, and credible, but perceived as such by both sides.
Adopt process for consistently responding to each complaint. To make sure every complaint is evaluated, your site should have a process for responding to complaints. For example, once a complaint is made, you can provide prompt written notice of receipt of the complaint to those alleged to have harassed or violated site rules (unless doing so would jeopardize the safety of the complaining individual) and to the alleged victim(s). Be sure to take measures to protect the alleged victim(s) from retaliation for making a complaint.
And any allegations should be investigated thoroughly, informing the alleged victim and alleged harasser of the findings from the investigation, and providing an explanation of what action was (or wasn’t) taken, and why. For example, if an investigation confirms the truth of the allegations, you must take action against any employees involved. More often than not, action will include discipline and perhaps termination based on the terms of your progressive discipline policies and procedures and the unique circumstances involved—for example, the gravity of the offense, the position and disciplinary history of the employee who committed it, remorse exhibited, etc.
You must also be prepared to hold agents who aren’t employees accountable for the sexual harassment they commit—for example, by terminating agreements or exerting financial pressures on landscaping, cleaning, servicing, or other contractors whose employees harass your tenants.
In situations where the alleged harasser has denied the allegations, you must look for other information that might help determine the truth. For example, past complaints against the same person might corroborate the allegations.
Maintain records and assess complaint procedures. You must maintain a record of all complaints, including in both the alleged victim’s file and the alleged harasser’s file. Also, maintain records from the investigation. It’s critically important to thoroughly document each step of the investigation so you can retrace your steps and prove that the investigation was thorough and fair. Keep the following records:
- The harassment complaint submitted by the tenant or third-party witness on the tenant’s behalf;
- The investigation plan;
- Witness statements and interview notes;
- The investigation report and recommendations; and
- The actions you took in response to the report or the reasons you determined not to take any corrective actions.
In addition, assess periodically whether your site’s complaint procedures are effective. You can survey and seek input on existing policies and practices from residents and organizations. For example, seeking input from a local legal aid office may help you find ways to strengthen your complaint process.
Other Types of Illegal Harassment
Illegal harassment can be severe or pervasive offensive remarks or hostile behavior because of a person’s race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin. Examples:
- Repeatedly yelling anti-Muslim slurs at a Muslim household.
- Taunting and threatening a person with a mental disability.
- Subjecting a person to pervasive racial epithets or defacing a person’s home with racially derogatory or threatening words or images.