New Jersey landlord demanded sex from tenants in exchange for reduced rent, DOJ alleges

Thomas Catenacci, DCNF

A landlord in Elizabeth, New Jersey routinely demanded sexual favors from and sexually harassed tenants, a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) complaint filed Wednesday alleged.

Joseph Centanni owns hundreds of rental units in the Elizabeth area, which is just south of Newark, New Jersey, and has sexually harassed clients on many occasions since 2005, the DOJ criminal complaint alleged. The lawsuit additionally noted that Centanni receives more than $100,000 per month through the Housing Choice Voucher Program.

“No one should ever be forced to provide sexual favors, or otherwise endure sexual harassment, as a condition to keep or obtain housing,” said U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito, according to a press release. “Sexual harassment in housing is illegal under the Fair Housing Act, and we will vigorously enforce this federal law to end this depraved type of behavior.”

The lawsuit further alleged that Centanni evicted or threatened to evict tenants who denied his sexual advances. He allegedly offered to reduce rent in exchange for sexual favors and touched applicants in an unwelcome manner.

“This conduct has included, but is not limited to…Offering to grant tangible housing benefits … to tenants in exchange for sexual favors, including oral sex; Subjecting actual and prospective tenants to unwelcome sexual touching; Exposing his genitals to actual and prospective tenants,” the lawsuit alleged in part.

The criminal complaint was the culmination of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Office and Office of Inspector General.

“Demanding sexual favors from tenants, especially those who are financially vulnerable, is illegal,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division.

The DOJ lawsuit filed against Centanni seeks monetary compensation for victims as well as civil penalties.

Section VIII of the 1968 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination “concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex, handicap and family status, according to HUD. Section VIII is also known as the Fair Housing Act.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program, established in 1974, is a federal government program that assists low income families in paying monthly rent, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Landlords who participate, including Centanni, receive a direct payment from the government, which covers rent for low income tenants.

Attorney General William Barr directed the DOJ Civil Rights Division to investigate the uptick in housing-related sexual harassment reports associated with the coronavirus pandemic in April.

“There have been reports, however, of other landlords who have responded to requests to defer rent payments with demands for sexual favors and other acts of unwelcome sexual conduct,” Barr said. “Such behavior is despicable and it is illegal.”

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