- The Washington Times
Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have formed a joint task force to target landlords who sexually harass their tenants, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Thursday afternoon.

Joined by HUD Secretary Ben Carson, Mr. Sessions said the the goal of the task force is to make it easier for sexual-assault victims to alert law enforcement. The announcement comes on the 50th anniversary of President Johnson signing the Fair Housing Act of 1968, roughly one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

The task force will enable DOJ to share complaints with officials at HUD and improve training for public housing authorities. It will focus on sharing data and analysis, evolution compliant systems in public housing, review federal policies and coordination of public outreach.

A new social media campaign encouraging sexual harassment victims to come forward and speak with law enforcement will also be managed by the task force. Individual U.S. Attorneys offices will run public service announcements in their districts.

In addition, the Justice Department will distribute training materials to all 94 U.S. Attorneys Offices on enforcement and outreach efforts. The materials will include guidance and checklists to help victims connect with the Justice Department.

“Too many victims in these situations don’t realize that our Department can help them,” Mr. Sessions said.

Mr. Carson recalled a man sexually harassing his mother in the Detroit apartment where he grew up. He joked that, “you should have seen that man when she was done with him,” but then lamented that not all people can protect themselves.

“No person should have to tolerate unwanted sexual advances to keep a roof over his or her head,” Mr. Carson said.

In October 2017, The Justice Department launched a pilot program to combat sexual harassment in housing in Washington, D.C., and Virginia. During the pilots, the Justice Department tested ways to better connect with both victims and organizations that may help them, including law enforcement, legal services, public housing authorities and sexual assault service providers.

The pilot programs generated an upswing in harassment reporting in both districts, the Justice Department said. The program generated six leads in the District of Columbia and three in Virginia.

Other initiatives to fight sexual discrimination in housing were tested in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, California and Michigan.

The Trump administration has ramped up enforcement of sexual harassment in housing laws in recent months. Last year, the Justice Department recovered more than $1 million in damages for harassment victims.

In March, the Justice Department won a $625,000 settlement with two St. Louis landlords who were alleged to have subjected 15 female tenants to sexual harassment over 20 years.

The Justice Department civil lawsuit alleged that Hezekiah and Jameseva Webb forced tenants to perform unwanted sexual acts and made unwanted sexual comments and advances in exchange four housing. The two were also accused of retaliating against residents who refused sexual advances.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit alleging Douglas S. Waterbury, a residential property owner and landlord in Oswego, New York, saying he sexually harassed numerous women who lived in his properties. The suit claims Mr. Waterbury demanded female tenants engage in sex acts with him in order to obtain or keep rental housing.

• Jeff Mordock can be reached at jmordock@washingtontimes.com.

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