On September 14, 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a final rule setting out legal standards under the Fair Housing Act for sexual and other forms of harassment in housing. HUD and courts have long held that harassment in housing or housing-related transactions on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and familial status is prohibited under the Fair Housing Act, but the new rule provides greater clarity regarding such claims.
In addition to issuing its final rule on harassment, HUD’s Office of General Counsel also issued guidance on the enforcement of local nuisance and crime-free housing ordinances against victims of domestic violence and other crimes.
According to a HUD press release announcing the new harassment rule,
Harassment in housing threatens a resident’s safety and privacy in her own home. In HUD’s experience enforcing the Fair Housing Act, low-income women—often racial and ethnic minorities and persons with disabilities—may be particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment in housing.
HUD’s final rule on harassment in housing includes formal uniform standards for evaluating claims of both “hostile environment” and “quid pro quo” harassment in the housing context. “Hostile environment” sexual harassment involves subjecting a person to unwelcome conduct that is sufficiently severe or pervasive that it interferes with or deprives the person of the right to use and enjoy their housing. “Quid pro quo” harassment involves subjecting a person to an unwelcome request or demand and making submission to the request or demand a condition related to the person’s housing.
The rule, which will be effective on October 14, 2016, states that harassment can be “written, verbal, or other conduct, and does not require physical contact,” and that “[a] single incident of harassment … may constitute a discriminatory housing practice, where the incident is sufficiently severe…”
The harassment rule also clarifies when housing providers and others may be held directly or vicariously liable under the Fair Housing Act for illegal harassment or other discriminatory housing practices, including, for example, harassment by one tenant or neighbor against another where a housing provider “knew or should have known” about the conduct and “had the power to correct it.”
In issuing the guidance related to local nuisance ordinances, HUD’s press release noted that such ordinances “may be used to evict domestic violence survivors and others who seek police or emergency assistance.” The press release continued:
The Nuisance Ordinance Guidance addresses ordinances that penalize residents for a small number of 911 calls to police, even when a person is in need of protection from domestic violence or another crime. Nuisance ordinances often require or allow landlords to evict residents in such circumstances, thereby discouraging victims from reporting domestic abuse or other crimes and obtaining the emergency police and medical assistance they need…. These types of ordinances violate the Fair Housing Act when they have an unjustified discriminatory effect or are enacted or enforced to intentionally discriminate because of a protected characteristic.
Click here to read about the Fair Housing Project’s litigation related to sexual harassment in housing in North Carolina.