Department of Justice officials say the problem of sexual harassment in housing often goes unreported. Officials met with Sioux City-area community groups Friday at the Sioux City Public Museum to spark conversations about how to recognize and prevent these problems.
Sexual harassment in housing is illegal under the Fair Housing Act, but the problem is still out there, Department of Justice officials said. Nancy Langworthy, a trial attorney with the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, said most victims are unaware that sexual harassment violates the law.
“There is a real need for education,” Langworthy said.
Officials want to make people more aware that they can file complaints for this behavior with their local human rights commission, the Iowa Civil Rights Commission or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
United States Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, Peter Deegan, said he thinks the problem often goes underreported because victims “are not in a position to easily report these types of crimes.”
“People might have a language barrier or a cultural barrier or quite often a financial barrier that prevents them from coming forward to say, “Hey I’m being mistreated in my effort to get housing for my family. Is there something that can be done about it?’”
Deegan says he hopes the conversation between community groups will encourage people to be on the lookout for harassment in housing so they can be a part of the solution.
About 40 people attended the roundtable in Sioux City Friday, including members of the Sioux City Human Rights Department, Goodwill of the Great Plains and local attorneys. They heard from Department of Justice attorneys about identifying sexual harassment in housing, enforcement and remedies of the problem.
They later worked in groups to brainstorm what the Department of Justice’s Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative could do to increase awareness that harassment in housing is against the law and what types of partnerships they could form to report it.
Frank Tenuta, a managing attorney with Iowa Legal Aid, says his clients have dealt with harassment.
“Often my clients tell me they were in the shower and it was late at night or early in the morning and the landlord just came walking in,” Tenuta said. “It’s almost always a woman client who has that kind of problem and almost always it’s a landlord who’s a man.”
Tenuta says he is hopeful Friday’s discussion will spark more conversations and empathy for people who have been harassed.
The Sioux City Human Rights Commission says it received one allegation of unfair treatment based on sex and race in the last budget year through June 30.
A spokeswoman for the Iowa Civil Rights Commission said the state commission received six housing complaints between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018 that alleged sexual harassment.
They have received one complaint so far this budget year.