April 12, 2018 / 4:10 PM / 5 months ago

U.S. launches crackdown on sexual harassment in housing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration launched an initiative on Thursday to crack down on sexual harassment of women by landlords and encourage victims to come forward for help from the U.S. Justice Department and Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a civil rights initiative announcement at the Fair Housing Act 50th Anniversary at the Justice Department in Washington, U.S., April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The two departments will create a task force to combat sexual harassment in housing and pursue a public awareness campaign to convince victims to report abuses with the backing of the government. This comes as the #MeToo global movement to stop sexual harassment continues to gain momentum.

“We’ve seen many cases, especially in public housing, where a landlord will exploit vulnerable women and threaten them with eviction unless they provide sexual favors,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at an event kicking off the initiative. “We are not going to tolerate that.”

The initiative coincides with the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the landmark Fair Housing Act that banned housing discrimination based on sex, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion or disability.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions participates in a civil rights initiative announcement at the Fair Housing Act 50th Anniversary at the Justice Department in Washington, U.S., April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The initiative aims at protecting women from harassment by landlords, property managers, maintenance workers, security guards and representatives of rental property owners.

“These perpetrators use violence, they use intimidation, they use fear to prey on vulnerable victims,” Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in an interview.

The Justice Department estimates that about 80 percent of sexual harassment victims who might be protected by the Fair Housing Act never report it to either of the two departments, Gore said.

Since President Donald Trump, a wealthy real estate developer, took office last year, the Justice Department has filed or settled nine sexual harassment housing cases.

During the Obama administration, the Justice Department prioritized cases involving racial discrimination in lending and housing.

A pedestrian passes the Department of Housing and Urban Developement at the start of the third day of a shut down of the federal government in Washington, U.S., January 22, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Civil rights advocates have criticized Sessions for his department’s failure to file any significant fair lending enforcement actions since he became attorney general in February 2017. They also have decried HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s rollback of Obama-era rules aimed at reversing racial segregation in public housing.

“We are not seeing vigorous fair housing enforcement out of the Department of Justice in the last year,” said Joe Rich, co-director of the Fair Housing and Community Development Projects at the advocacy group Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Civil rights activists welcomed efforts by the government to step up enforcement actions against sexual harassment.

“Sexual harassment in housing is a particularly insidious form of discrimination,” said Sandra Park, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project.

Anna Maria Farias, HUD’s assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, said she believes publicity of the issue will encourage more victims to come forward.

“A woman shouldn’t feel that they have to sell their soul to remain in that home,” she said in an interview.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Will Dunham

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