There is much still to learn about COVID-19. We know, however, that persons with disabilities, including those who are older and have underlying medical conditions, are vulnerable and at high risk for a severe, life-threatening response to the virus. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recognizes that these persons may face unique fair housing and civil rights issues in their housing and related services.
During this national emergency, HUD wants to remind housing providers and the public at large of important federal fair housing laws that protect persons from discrimination, including harassment and intimidation on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status and disability. Housing providers are required to make reasonable accommodations that may be necessary to deliver housing and services to persons with disabilities affecting major life activities.
The Fair Housing Act and other federal, state and local laws collectively prohibit discrimination in nearly all housing transactions and residential settings across the nation, including rental housing, nursing homes, permanent shelters, and other places where people live and receive services together. Each April HUD observes Fair Housing Month.
This year HUD continues its focus on addressing sexual harassment: "Call HUD, Because Sexual Harassment in Housing is Illegal." The goal is to increase the department’s efforts to better educate the public on what behaviors constitute sexual harassment and what to do/who to contact if people experience it in their communities.
Two women were forced to move from an apartment complex when a maintenance worker told them they could exchange sex for rent. A landlord entered a woman’s apartment uninvited and on one occasion the woman awoke to find him in her bedroom, on her bed. Another woman was threatened with eviction if she didn’t have sex with her landlord. HUD sees these kind of sexual harassment complaints filed far too often.
As the HUD regional director for the southeastern region, when we hear these stories come into our office, we take action. Recently, we helped a woman in Florida get a $75,000 settlement after an employee at a housing authority allegedly harassed her by making unwelcome sexual comments, requesting sexual favors and threatening eviction. Not only did the renter receive a monetary settlement, but the housing provider adopted a new sexual harassment policy and its staff was forced to attend fair-housing training.
HUD and the Justice Department launched a nationwide joint initiative to combat sexual harassment in housing by increasing the public’s awareness of the issue and encouraging the reporting of harassment. The Justice Department has filed over a dozen lawsuits alleging sexual harassment in housing since the joint HUD/Justice Department initiative was launched.
HUD also launched a special campaign and training initiative to help protect people from harassment by landlords, property managers and maintenance workers in HUD-assisted housing. Through this initiative, HUD and its partner organizations obtained over $1 million in relief for nearly 130 survivors and victims’ funds over the past two years.
HUD remains committed to helping all those who face housing discrimination because of how they look, where they come from, their sex, religion, family status or disability, as well as those being threatened with eviction because they are unaware of their fair housing rights.
If anyone believes they have experienced discrimination, including sexual harassment in housing, they can file a complaint by contacting HUD's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at (800) 669-9777 (voice) or (800) 927-9275 (TTY). Housing discrimination complaints may also be filed by going to hud.gov/fair housing.
Denise Cleveland-Leggett is the HUD regional administrator for the Southeastern region, which includes Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee and the U.S. Virgin Islands.