Photo-Illustration: Lined. Photo: Google
Last week, a bad landlord to rule all bad landlord story went viral in various new electrical outletswith such appalling and creepy content that I couldn’t get rid of the accompanying photos of said bad landlord (technically a property manager in this case) smiling in an orange Hawaiian shirt.
The news was this: Las Vegas-area broker, manager, and landlord Allan Rothstein was being sued in federal court for including a “sex” clause in a tenant’s lease. The tenant was a homeless former single mother of five in Las Vegas using a Section 8 housing voucher; after denying Rothstein a handjob, he added a stipulation in his lease that she signed a “direct consent to intercourse and/or fellatio or cunnilingus” for five years, as well as agreeing not to have partner who was “taller, meaner and more physically aggressive” than Rothstein. He even banned her from using “intoxicants” from a bizarre list that included “sea cucumber, strawberries, lobster, dark chocolate, cocaine” and “LSD.”
The general reaction to the lawsuit has mainly focused on how shit and Rothstein’s outrageous behavior was. But ask a tenant rights attorney and you’ll get a different answer. “My first reaction was, ‘What took them so long?’ Because I see this regularly,” says Sheryl Ring, an attorney who works with low-income tenants and landlords in the Chicago area.
Ring spoke at length about his experience working with tenants who are, in fact, regular victims of sexual bullying and harassment of the kind that Rothstein is accused of, and what really happens to landlords who admit to this behavior in court. Unfortunately, she predicts that this kind of behavior will only get worse as our current housing crisis continues.
You say Allan Rothstein’s behavior is not unique. What is its frequency?
I wish I could say that was an outlier, but it’s not. There’s this idea that maybe what was unusual was that the landlord put it in the lease – well, that’s not unusual either. I asked a landlord to include a clause in a lease requiring daily lap dances. I’ve seen dozens – and that’s no exaggeration – dozens of leases in the last year alone with a clause that the landlord must approve a tenant’s overnight guests. And these come from lease forms, with boilerplate language available on the Internet. It goes to show how far it’s gone, that a big legal editor is right in their standard lease that you get to approve your tenant’s guest for the night. There’s only one reason it’s there in the first place: because they’re so commonly used. [Ring sent Curbed examples of such contract clauses from the National Apartment Association, SignNow, and Rental Lease Agreement.com.]
And those are just the things that are written into the leases.
You’d be amazed at how willing people are to put these things into text messages. It can be anything like “You want to keep living here, don’t you?” to – I have a case right now where the owner put in writing, in response to a repair request, “What do I get out of this?” The [tenant’s] The answer was “You get your rent”, and the answer to that was “What if I want more than that?” The problem is not that this was a unique case. The problem is that the incentives for this are built into the model.
Do landlords and property managers do this knowing it’s illegal?
The Fair Housing Act quite explicitly makes sexual harassment quid pro quo illegal. The problem is that most people don’t even know the Fair Housing Act exists. And the problem is the nature of the disparity in bargaining power between landlords and tenants. It makes sense that this happens, at least in my experience, more often to women with children, to single mothers. The reason is that they don’t want their children to be homeless. This is something that affects women of color the most, largely because women of color are far more likely to rent than white women. This massively affects trans women more than cis women.
Since landlords who sexually harass tenants know they are breaking the law, are they crossing the line in any other way?
There is a direct link between this [type of harassment] and how it intersects with other tenant protection laws. One of the biggest correlations I’ve found is between landlords who do this and landlords who illegally withhold security deposits. Number one: landlords who break the law won’t care about security deposit details. Second, for tenants (who, as I said, are mostly people of color), they need that money to move. So when a landlord withholds that money and threatens to withhold the deposit, they’re essentially holding you captive.
I had a case several years ago where a landlord charged an illegally large security deposit. The reason he charged him was because if you had to pay that much to move in, no one would move, and he and his people could do whatever they wanted. I’ve represented hundreds, if not thousands, of tenants in cases like this, and I’ve yet to see a landlord who was a sex pest who had the proper accounting for security deposits and provided all the disclosures. This is the last stage of the exploitation that already exists.
Do you also see a connection between landlords who sexually coerce tenants and those who discriminate against tenants who use federal programs like vouchers to pay rent (ie, the source of income discrimination)? The Las Vegas tenant was using a housing voucher.
As far as the law goes, when you get out of a few big cities, that leaves a lot of landlords who are basically able to do whatever they want. Illinois has incredibly weak tenant protections. We have a constitutional ban on rent control. Like in Nevada, there is no prohibition against discrimination by source of income, and without rent control, people with vouchers have nowhere to go. And so there is also a perverse incentive for housing authorities to continue doing business with bad landlords, because so few landlords even accept the good ones in the first place. Thus “Slumlord X” becomes the sole owner of your district with more than a hundred dwellings. I can’t tell you which ones, but I’ve had people say to me from several housing voucher associations, “We’d like not to do business with this guy. We have no choice. All of our clients would be homeless.
What about when tenants actually sue landlords for sexual harassment?
In Illinois, again, like most places, there is no right to an attorney in eviction court. So unless you can find someone like me, who will do these things cheaply, you walk in with nobody and the judges just don’t care. The sad truth is that you could stand there as a pro se litigant in housing court and say, “Judge, the aliens are out and they are here. And the judges would say, “That’s good, possession order granted.” I’ve personally seen pro tenants say, “He’s kicking me out because I don’t want to sleep with him.” “He kicked me out because my daughter didn’t want to sleep with him.” And the owner either admits it or brags about it and still wins the case. There was a judge who has since retired who actually scorned a tenant because he threatened to hit the landlord after the landlord said he was evicting them because the tenant’s daughter didn’t want to sleep with him. him. And the judge apologized to the landlord and signed the eviction order. I had a case a few years ago where a landlord put such a clause in the lease that we sued, and the landlord was defended by his car insurance company.
Have you noticed an increase in these practices?
Is this more common in the age of COVID? Yes absolutely. Was this unheard of before COVID? Absolutely not. When you have a clientele that has nowhere to go, that’s the very definition of a captive audience. And the current environment we see, where private investors are buying single-family homes, is even worse, because the only thing tenants still have going for them in apartment buildings is the ability to unionize. Each of the cases I have now are with an owner who has multiple buildings, miles apart. I’ve noticed that landlords who have more scattered dwellings tend to do this more often [because it’s harder for tenants to organize].
Do you see this kind of harassment becoming more prevalent with unprecedented rental shortages across the country?
It’s frightening. It will get worse before it gets better. It’s something where it’s a daily occurrence for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people every day. There’s this idea that with a bad landlord, you can report it. But if you look at what’s really going on, these landlords put tenants in an impossible situation and then they get away with it. I’ll put it this way. I have represented hundreds and thousands of tenants. I’ve never had a case where my client was the first one this owner did it to.