Last week, a bad landlord story to rule all bad landlords went viral on multiple news outlets, with content so appalling and creepy I have not been able to shake off accompanying photos of said bad landlord (technically a property manager in this case) grinning in an orange Hawaiian shirt.
The news item went as follows: Allan Rothstein, a Las Vegas–area broker, manager, and landlord, was being sued in federal court for including a “sexual intercourse” clause in a tenant’s lease. The tenant was a formerly homeless single mom of five in Las Vegas using a Section 8 housing voucher; after she had refused Rothstein a hand job, he added a stipulation in her lease that she was signing over “Direct Consent for Sexual Intercourse and/or Fellatio or Cunnilingus” for five years, as well as agreeing not to have a partner that was “larger, meaner, and more physically aggressive” than Rothstein. He had even banned her from using “intoxicants” in a bizarre list including “sea cucumber, strawberries, lobster, dark chocolate, Cocaine,” and “LSD.”
The general reaction to the lawsuit has mostly been focused on how batshit and outrageous Rothstein’s behavior was. But ask a tenant-rights attorney and you get a different response. “My first reaction was, ‘What took them so long?’ Because I see this on a regular basis,” says Sheryl Ring, a lawyer who works with low-income tenants and homeowners in the Chicago area.
Ring spoke at length about her experience working with tenants who are, in fact, routinely subject to sexual intimidation and harassment of the kind Rothstein is accused of, and what actually happens to landlords who admit 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. How common is it?
I wish I could say that this 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 had a landlord include in a lease a clause demanding daily lap dances. I have seen dozens — and that is not an exaggeration — dozens of leases in the past year alone with a clause that the landlord has to approve a female tenant’s overnight guests. And these are from form leases, with boilerplate language that is available on the internet. That just shows how far this has gone, that a major publisher of legal documents has it right in their standard lease that you get to approve your tenant’s overnight guest. There’s only one reason for that to be in 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 that’s only the stuff that gets put down in leases.
You would be amazed at how willing people are to put these things in text messages. It can be anything from, “You want to keep living here, don’t you?” to — I have a case right now where the landlord put in writing, in response to a request for repairs, “What do I get out of it?” The [tenant’s] response was “You get your rent,” and the response to that was, “What if I want more than that?” The issue is not that this was a one-off. 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 pretty explicitly makes quid pro quo sexual harassment illegal. The problem is most people don’t know that the Fair Housing Act even exists. And the problem is the nature of the disparity of the bargaining power between landlords and tenants. It makes sense that this happens, at least in my experience, more often to women with children, single moms. The reason is they don’t want their kids to be homeless. This is something that most overwhelmingly impacts women of color, largely because women of color are far more likely to rent than white women are. This overwhelmingly affects trans women more than it affects cis women.
Since the landlords who sexually harass tenants know they’re breaking the law, do they cross the line in other ways?
There is a direct connection between this [type of harassment] and how it intersects with other tenant-protection laws. One of the biggest correlations I have found is between landlords who do this and the landlords who illegally withhold security deposits. No. 1: Landlords who break the law aren’t going to care about the nitty-gritty of security deposits. No. 2: For people who rent (who, like I said, are overwhelmingly people of color), they need that money to move. So when a landlord withholds that money and threatens to withhold the deposit, they’re basically holding you captive.
I had a case several years ago where a landlord charged an illegally large security deposit. The reason he was charging it was because, if you had to pay that much to move in, no one was moving out, and he and his people could do whatever they wanted. I have represented hundreds, if not thousands, of tenants in cases like this, and I have yet to see a landlord who was a sex pest who had the appropriate accounting for security deposits and provided all the disclosures. It’s the final step in the exploitation that already exists.
Do you also see a link between landlords who sexually coerce tenants and those who discriminate against tenants who use federal programs like vouchers to pay rent (i.e., source-of-income discrimination)? The tenant in Las Vegas was using a housing voucher.
When it comes to the law, when you get outside of a couple of major cities, it 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 Nevada, there is no source of income-discrimination ban, and with no rent control, people with vouchers have nowhere to go. And so there’s also a perverse incentive for housing authorities to keep doing business with bad landlords, because so few landlords even accept the vouchers in the first place. So “Slumlord X” becomes the only landlord in your area with more than a hundred units. I can’t tell you which ones, but I have had people tell me from multiple housing-voucher associations, “We would love to not do business with this guy. We have no choice. All of our clients would be homeless.”
What about when tenants actually do take their landlords to court for sexual harassment?
In Illinois, again, like in most places, there is no right to counsel in an eviction court. So unless you can find somebody like me, who will do these things at a low cost, you go in with nobody and judges just don’t pay attention. The sad truth is you could stand up there as a pro se litigant in Housing Court and say, “Judge, the aliens are outside and they’re here.” And judges would say, “That’s nice, order of possession granted.” I have personally witnessed pro se tenants say, “He’s kicking me out because I wouldn’t sleep with him.” “He’s kicking me out because my daughter wouldn’t sleep with him.” And the landlord admits it or brags about it and wins the case anyway. There was one judge who has since retired who actually held a tenant in contempt because he threatened to punch the landlord after the landlord said that he was evicting them because the tenant’s daughter wouldn’t sleep with 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 a clause like that in the lease — we sued, and the landlord was defended by his car-insurance company.
Have you seen an uptick in these practices?
Is it more common in the age of COVID? Yes, absolutely. Was it unheard of before COVID? Absolutely not. When you have a clientele who has nowhere else to go, they are the very definition of a captive audience. And the current environment we’re seeing, where you have private investors buying up single-family homes, is even worse, because the one thing that tenants still have going for them in apartment buildings is the ability to unionize. Every single one of the cases that I have now is with a landlord who has multiple buildings miles away from each other. I have noticed, landlords who have more scattered housing tend to do this more often [because it’s harder for tenants to organize].
Do you see this kind of harassment getting more prevalent with unprecedented rental shortages across the country?
It is scary. It is going to get worse before it gets better. This is something where it is 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 them. But if you look at what actually happens, 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 landlord did it to.