Legacy Story: Squeezed, Hounded, and Harassed (2000)

In 2000, reporter Jennifer Thaney explored the correlation between the dwindling number of available rental units in the Twin Cities and an increase in reported incidents of sexual harassment toward women tenants. Elana Dahlager, leading attorney at Mid Minnesota Legal Aid‘s Housing Discrimination Law Project, recently told Minnesota Women’s Press that she sees sexual harassment continue to occur in rental housing. “[In 2024 there] is a tight rental market and so people are vulnerable to discrimination. We continue to affirmatively litigate sexual harassment cases.”

The following story appeared in the June 2000 issue of Minnesota Women’s Press. Twice per month in 2024, MWP is uplifting select pieces from our 39-year archive with a focus on longstanding issues. 

So, you want to rent an apartment. You’ll need persistence, ready cash, and lots of luck.

And you also need to beware that the Twin Cities’ tight housing market — only 1 percent of the metro area’s rental units are vacant — has given rise to an apparent increase in sexual harassment by landlords toward women tenants.

Shawn Marie Porter (pictured with her daughter, Alexus) and Porter’s attorney, Laura Jelinek, won a sexual harassment claim against a landlord who tried to force Porter to have sex with him. Photo Paula Keller (2000)

While this does not happen in all or even most buildings, incidents of sexual harassment in housing are increasing, said James Wilkinson, an attorney with the Housing Discrimination Law Project, which offers legal services to tenants facing discrimination issues. During the first three years of the project, Wilkinson was aware of only one case of sexual harassment in housing. In the past two years, however, Wilkinson and his colleagues have successfully litigated six cases, recovering $200,000 for their clients, and are preparing another five right now. “And these are only the most egregious cases,” Wilkinson noted.

Women who are sexually harassed by their landlords are often reluctant to report it, either out of embarrassment or because they do not know they have recourse.

Sexual harassment in housing usually takes two different forms, explained Laura Jelinek, an attorney with the Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services who has worked with “numerous, numerous” sexual harassment victims. In some cases, landlords create a hostile environment for tenants by making constant, unwelcomed sexual advances, including inappropriate comments, gestures, and touches. In other situations, the harassment is quid pro quo: landlords seek sexual favors in exchange for continued tenancy.

For example, Jelinek said, if a woman is late with her rent, a landlord might not evict her as long as she has sex with him. Or, a caretaker might make needed repairs if the tenant who requested them performs oral sex.

Jelinek said these landlords tend to pick tenants they believe are least likely to complain — primarily low-income women. Jelinek also noted that many victims are women of color, which she attributed to landlords’ perceptions that Black women have even less power and recourse to stop harassment.

Pam Jackson, community education coordinator at the Saint Paul Tenants Union, said that the tight housing market traps women into putting up with sexual harassment. “As long as there is such a huge demand for housing, women, particularly those with children, will think real hard about what’s more important: having a landlord who [sexually] harasses them or living in a shelter,” Jackson said.

Jackson said she receives approximately two calls a day from tenants who feel their privacy has been violated by landlords or caretakers who let themselves into apartments when women are getting up from bed or showering in the morning. Calls about blatant sexual harassment are more rare, she said, estimating one call every four or five months.

Not so at the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, where Investigative Supervisor Rosalind Sullivan has received about 10 calls this year from women who claim they have been sexually harassed by landlords or their landlords agents. This compares with zero calls over the past four years. The increase, said Sullivan, “is because landlords know people are in a housing crunch.”

Jelinek said statistics are difficult to track because tenants are often too embarrassed by the harassment or are afraid of losing their housing to report landlords. While she has tried only three cases in court, Jelinek has heard many more stories that don’t make it that far. “I think sexual harassment in housing has been going on for a long time. It’s much more prevalent than we think.”

When women do finally report sexual harassment, said Jackson, it’s because they can’t take it anymore. “They are at their wit’s end.”

Shawn Porter had reached that point when she called Jelinek in March 1998. For nearly one year, the caretaker of her apartment in St. Paul and his brother sexually harassed her. At first, the harassment was verbal. They would tell Porter, who was pregnant with her second child at the time, how nice it was to see her butt rounding out. They would also remind porter how easily they could let themselves into her apartment as they waved keys in front of her face. Finally, said Porter, “They tried to force sex upon me in front of my daughter. That was the last straw. This is my body, and I pay my rent with cash, not my body. It’s bad enough I had to listen to their comments, but the physical touching, that was too much.”

Porter eventually won a $30,000 settlement from the caretaker’s employer, but receiving money was never her intention, she said.

“I was scared to death half the time, but I wasn’t going to back down. … We shouldn’t have to be scared to step forward. … I just didn’t want any other woman to have to deal with this.”

Jelinek also succeeded in requiring the landlord to establish a sexual harassment policy to be posted in each of his buildings and the tenants’ leases.

The federal Fair Housing Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act prohibit sexual harassment in housing, and they require landlords to maintain an environment free of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, Jelinek said, it’s up to tenants to set these laws in motion. “It’s not until tenants step up and challenge the way they are treated that we can even use those laws.”

Ignorance is no excuse, Wilkinson added. “If landlords are not keeping a close watch on their staff, they may be held responsible if their building manager, caretaker, or janitor gets into a sexual harassment situation.”

Wilkinson noted that the movement to ensure fair housing for all has historically focused on eliminating discrimination based on race, disability, and familial status. To that Wilkinson hopes will be added sexual harassment, so that those who enforce fair housing laws are trained to recognize when boundaries are crossed and how to prosecute perpetrators effectively.

[Editor’s Note: In 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development put into effect a rule about quid pro quo and hostile environment harassment. Dahlager says MMLA is working to ensure that landlords follow these rules, and is advocating for training to prevent all forms of housing discrimination.]

The Minnesota Multi-Housing Association (MMHA), which represents 1,700 apartment owners and managers throughout the state, provides approximately 75 trainings each year on a variety of topics relevant to property owners. Many of these sessions focus on fair housing laws. MMHA president Mary Rippe said that until Wilkinson spoke to the association last April, she had not heard of any cases where landlords or their agents sexually harassed tenants.

“I was quite surprised and astonished,” she said. “I think people who join [MMHA] strive to be professional and to provide safe housing.” Unless sexual harassment is housing becomes more of an issue, said Rippe, she doubts it will become a specific focus of any future trainings. The same holds true for the St. Paul Association of Responsible Landlords (SPARLS), which has about 250 members. SPARLS president Paul Schmidt said the organization’s limited staff and budget is focused on educating landlords “about the basics of the business.” For right now, at least, that means fair housing laws, screening tenants, establishing written leases, and turning around problem properties, Schmidt said, not sexual harassment. “I haven’t heard of anything like that, to be honest,” he said.

Both Jelinek and Wilkinson said that sexual harassment is more likely to occur in buildings where the owners are not involved in organizations like MMHA and SPARLS. These owners do not contract with professional management companies, which means landlords and their employees are involved in every aspect of the business, including making repairs, collecting rent or other situations on site where the landlord is alone with the tenant.

Unless everything about the current housing market changes, Jackson fears that women who are being sexually harassed by their landlords, caretakers or apartment managers will continue to feel trapped. More vacancies are needed, rents need to be stabilized or capped for low-income women, and more affordable houses must be available for women to purchase, she said. “It is so discouraging. I’m trying to find a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m trying to come up with something refreshing to say about this, but I can’t.”

— June 2000

Sexual Harassment in Housing Resources

Updated for 2024 by Mid Minnesota Legal Aid

Legal resources

  • Mid Minnesota Legal Aid, 1-877-696-6529 or 612-334-5970
  • Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, 1-877-696-6529 or 651-222-5863
  • A private attorney who practices in the area of civil rights and discrimination

File a complaint with a government agency

  • U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Housing Discrimination Hotline, 800-669-9777
  • Minnesota Department of Human Rights, 833-454-0148; Report Discrimination: mn.gov/mdhr/intake/consultationinquiryform
  • Some cities also have civil rights divisions. Minneapolis Complaint Investigation Division Discrimination Complaint Form, or call 311. Saint Paul Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity, hrightscomplaints@ci.stpaul.mn.us or 651-266-8966

Mid Minnesota Legal Aid and Southern Minnesota Legal Services represent people with low incomes free of charge. These offices will provide advice or referrals. Government agencies investigate complaints of housing discrimination free of charge.