ELIZABETH, NJ - The Department of Justice announced Wednesday that it has filed a lawsuit alleging that the owner of rental properties in Elizabeth, New Jersey, violated the Fair Housing Act by subjecting tenants to sexual harassment, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito announced.
The complaint alleges that Joseph Centanni, who owns hundreds of rental units in and around Elizabeth, has subjected tenants and applicants to sexual harassment on multiple occasions since at least 2005.
“No one should ever be forced to provide sexual favors, or otherwise endure sexual harassment, as a condition to keep or obtain housing,” U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said. “Sexual harassment in housing is illegal under the Fair Housing Act, and we will vigorously enforce this federal law to end this depraved type of behavior.”
“The Fair Housing Act protects the right of all persons in our nation to rent a home without suffering sexual exploitation at the hands of abusive landlords. Demanding sexual favors from tenants, especially those who are financially vulnerable, is illegal,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division. “The Fair Housing Act protects tenants from sexual harassment and retaliation by their landlords, and the Justice Department will hold accountable those who engage in such cruel, depraved, and illegal conduct and will work tirelessly to obtain relief for their victims.”
According to the complaint:
Centanni demanded sexual favors to get or keep housing, offered housing benefits like reduced rent in exchange for sexual favors, touched tenants and applicants in a way that was sexual and unwelcome, and made unwelcome sexual comments and advances to tenants and applicants. The complaint also alleges that Centanni initiated or threatened to initiate eviction actions against tenants who objected to or refused his sexual advances. According to the complaint, Centanni participates in the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program (also known as “Section 8”) and receives approximately $102,000 each month in Housing Choice Voucher payments.
Today’s lawsuit seeks monetary damages to compensate the victims, civil penalties to vindicate the public interest, and a court order barring future discrimination. The complaint contains allegations of unlawful conduct; the allegations must be proven in federal court.
Today’s lawsuit is the result of a joint investigative effort with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Office and Office of Inspector General.
The Justice Department’s Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative is an effort to combat sexual harassment in housing led by the Civil Rights Division, in coordination with U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country. The Attorney General recently reaffirmed this commitment by directing the Justice Department to deploy all available enforcement tools against anyone who tries to capitalize on the COVID-19 crisis by sexually harassing people in need of housing. U.S. Attorney Carpenito has also reaffirmed the U.S. Attorney's Office's commitment to combatting sexual harassment in housing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal of the Department initiative is to address sexual harassment by landlords, property managers, maintenance workers, loan officers, or other people who have control over housing. As part of the initiative, the Justice Department developed a public service announcement and formed a joint task force with HUD to combat sexual harassment in housing. Since launching the Initiative in October 2017, the Department of Justice has filed 17 lawsuits alleging sexual harassment in housing.
The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and familial status. More information about the U.S. Attorney’s Civil Rights Unit and its enforcement efforts is available at http://www.justice.gov/usao-nj-/civil-rights-enforcement. More information about the Civil Rights Division and the laws it enforces is available at https://www.justice.gov/crt.
Individuals who believe that they may have been victims of sexual harassment or other types of housing discrimination at rental dwellings owned or managed by Centanni, or who have other information that may be relevant to this case, can contact the Housing Discrimination Tip Line, at 1-800-896-7743, and select option number one to leave a message.
Individuals can also report sexual harassment and other forms of housing discrimination by contacting the U.S. Attorney’s Office Civil Rights Hotline at (855) 281-3339 or e-mailing the Justice Department at email@example.com.