It is no secret that COVID-19 has exacerbated the existing vulnerabilities of persons across the world. In the United States, mass unemployment has caused many individuals to struggle to make ends meet. Experts warn that countless individuals will lose their housing if they remain unable to pay rent. In Philadelphia, families have moved into abandoned homes owned by the city in lieu of staying in shelters where they could be exposed to the virus or outside on the streets.
People are suffering and unfortunately there are predatory individuals who take advantage of their misfortune. Last week, The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against a New Jersey landlord who allegedly sexually harassed tenants and applicants. The lawsuit states that for the last decade, the landlord allegedly demanded sexual favors in exchange for housing.
The complaint alleges Mountainside, New Jersey resident Joseph Centanni took advantage of his position as a landlord and owner of 18 residential properties. Centanni allegedly demanded sexual favors from multiple women in exchange for help obtaining housing. The lawsuit alleges Centanni violated the Fair Housing Act, which protects tenants from retaliation and sexual harassment by their landlords.
In 2019, a female tenant who was poised to move out of one of Centanni’s properties asked him if she could stay because she was having trouble finding a new place to live. In response, Centanni allegedly asked her “How bad do you want your apartment?” before taking her to an empty room where he exposed himself and asked for oral sex. The female tenant, fearing homelessness, complied because she felt like she had no choice. Two years before this, a prospective female tenant allegedly inquired about one of Centanni’s properties only to be asked to “go down on him”. The complaint alleges these examples are a part of Centanni’s “longstanding pattern and practice of illegal sexual harassment of multiple actual and prospective tenants.”
Centanni’s alleged actions are unfortunately not uncommon. There are numerous reports of landlords using their positions of power to coerce tenants into sex across the world. With COVID-19 increasing economic instability for so many, these reports have only become more frequent.
Especially during this uncertain time, the CSE Institute is encouraged by The U.S. Justice Department’s lawsuit against this predatory landlord. However, we would also like to see charges under federal or state human trafficking statutes initiated against Centanni. In his position as landlord, Centanni allegedly coerced tenants and potential tenants to engage in sex acts with him in exchange for access to housing. Under federal law, sex trafficking takes place when a person uses force, fraud, or coercion to knowingly entice, harbor, transport, provide, obtain, advertise, maintain, patronize, or solicit another person for the purpose of a commercial sex act (18 U.S. code §1591 (a)). A commercial sex act is any sex act is any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person.
Human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation could not exist without inequality. Those with power and access to economic resources use their privilege to access the bodies of those with comparatively less privilege. Centanni’s alleged actions are synonymous with that of sex buyers and sex traffickers who take advantage of the vulnerabilities of others in an especially lurid way. As such, Centanni should face the full penalty of the law and be criminally prosecuted for his alleged patten of sexual exploitation.