Sexual Harassment in Housing: It's Against the Law


Sexual harassment is illegal in all areas protected by Iowa Code 216. This includes housing, employment, public accommodations, credit and education. While sexual harassment in employment has received the most publicity, sexual harassment in housing is a growing problem. Experts agree that while the number of complaints filed is small, the number of unreported harassment cases may actually be increasing.


General Information

Sexual harassment situations often involve victims who desperately need the employment or housing that is being threatened. Sexual harassment in housing may be even more devastating than in employment because the home is a more vulnerable, less public setting. The alleged harasser frequently has access to the victim's home. The victim feels physically and emotionally adrift, without control of her life, and that there's no safe place available.

While sexual harassment can happen to anyone, male or female, by either sex against either sex, the majority of victims in reported instances are female. Particularly susceptible are young single mothers, who have a difficult time finding affordable and safe housing for their families under the best of circumstances. A woman with limited economic and housing options may feel forced to submit to sexual behavior in order to obtain or keep a housing unit.

The courts have recognized two types of sexual harassment. The first is quid pro quo, or "this for that," and can be committed only by someone who has the power to control the victim's housing. This frequently involves the requiring of sexual favors as a condition of renting, leasing, or receiving repairs, or demanding sex in lieu of rental payment or under threat of eviction. When the housing provider denies or limits services or facilities because demands for sexual favors are refused, the individual is being victimized by sexual harassment.

The second type of sexual harassment is called "hostile environment." The landlord, manager, or other person with decision-making authority, creates or allows an abusive housing environment or interferes with the tenant's peaceful enjoyment of the property by activities of a sexual nature. The hostile environment harassment could also be caused by another tenant or byan outside person, such as a service person, coming into the housing location.


Examples of sexually harassing behavior in housing:


Especially for Landlords and Managers


Housing suppliers must sell, lease and negotiate with all applicants on an equal basis, but there should be an awareness of the vulnerability of persons who are urgently seeking housing.None of the protected characteristics should be used as threats or weapons to deny housing or housing services, or to provide housing under less than equally favorable circumstances.

Owners, supervisors and management firms should provide clear written policies prohibiting sexual harassment in their businesses. These policies should define prohibited behaviors; inform employees, clients, and tenants of whom to contact with a sexual harassment complaint; spell out disciplinary actions for those who violate the policy; and assure that there will be no retaliation against anyone who complains of harassment. Management should set the example of professional, business-like behavior in all transactions.

Owners, supervisors and management firms may incur personal liability for management's own behavior, as well as corporate liability, if they knew or should have known about the harassment and did not take prompt remedial action. Housing providers could also be responsible for harassment committed by other tenants or clients and by non-employees, such as service persons, if management knew or should have known about the harassment and did not take prompt remedial action.


Tenants: What To Do if it Happens to You


If you believe you have been subjected to sexual harassment in housing, you should report the harassment to the owner or manager. If the matter is not resolved, or if the harassment is being done by the owner or manager, contact the Iowa Civil Rights Commission about filing a complaint. Once the complaint has been filed, the Commission will investigate the circumstances to determine if a violation of the law has taken place. The Commission will also cross-file the complaint with the appropriate federal agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Commission provides free publications with information beneficial to both housing providers and to applicants for housing. Call the Commission to request a copy.