WASHINGTON – They didn’t leave their names and they didn’t say where they lived.
But a few months ago, Tracey Gill started hearing their stories on her message machine.
“These women were saying that their landlords were requesting sex in return for letting them stay in their apartments — demanding sex, I guess is more like it” said Gill, fair housing program manager at Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. “It was just disgusting.”
But it was not the first time Gill had heard such a tale.
“Year before last,” she said, “we did have a woman who filed a complaint against a mortgage loan officer who basically said that only way she was going to get that loan was if she would `put out,’ so to speak.”
The story is growing common to housing advocates across the state and the country who say women are increasingly filing complaints that men are demanding sexual favors in return for lease continuations, utilities hook-ups or basic maintenance services.
The circumstances are particularly terrifying, advocates say, because landlords and building custodians can easily become stalkers and often have keys to victims’ apartments.
While no statistics are available on how prevalent the problem has become, the National Fair Housing Alliance reported this month that it has fielded more complaints about sexual harassment in housing this year than ever before.
“It’s a pattern that seems to be emerging that it’s low-income women who might have a subsidy and have little housing choice,” said Anne Houghtaling, enforcement director for the advocacy agency.
“A landlord can have five applications for one apartment, so he can say, `Hey honey, guess what, if you want it, here’s what you’re going to have to do,'” she said.
Houghtaling said the problem is probably worse in the suburbs, where the limited number of landlords that accept federal housing subsidies can use the high demand for their apartments or houses as leverage for sexual favors.
Officials in Montgomery County said they have received several complaints of sexual harassment in housing but would not provide details of those cases or say whether they were investigated.
Other Maryland officials said they had not fielded such complaints or could not disclose the details of reported accusations, but they agreed that the notion of such an offense is abhorrent.
Michael Mitchell of the Equal Rights Center, which handles housing discrimination cases in the Washington metro area and elsewhere in Maryland, said the danger of harassment is heightened because of the region’s tight housing market.
“Because of the high cost of housing, some of these problems are exacerbated,” Mitchell said. “We have seen an increase in complaints filed on behalf of women who are in properties, being told they have to sleep with the maintenance person or the manager to get basic services.
“It’s like, `If you want heat this winter, you have to . . . ,'” he said. “It’s really quite horrifying.”