“He knows I don’t have a job. He knows I don’t have anywhere to go — he’s preying on me.”
When Gail Savage’s landlord messaged asking her if she would “stay all night” with him, she assumed he’d texted the wrong number.
“I was like, He probably meant to send that to his girlfriend,” Savage, 29, told BuzzFeed News.
A single mom to 2-year-old son Salem, Savage lost her job working as a bartender at a popular Indianapolis cocktail bar and her gigs working as a burlesque performer when the state shutdown occurred on March 16. She’d let her landlord know and they’d been texting about how she was waiting for the federal stimulus check to arrive to pay her April rent, when he suddenly inquired if she could get a ride and “stay all night” with him.
“I don’t know if you meant to send that to me,” she replied.
“I did,” he wrote back, in text messages seen by BuzzFeed News.
Three times she wrote back that she didn’t understand.
“Are you asking me in a sexual way?” she texted.
“Yes,” her landlord replied.
“The second I figured out it was happening, it was the craziest thing: I put Salem in his car seat and walked out the door,” said Savage. “I was like, I don’t know where I’m going, but I can’t stay. I was scared.”
Landlords have always harassed some tenants for sex, usually women in vulnerable low-income communities, such as undocumented immigrants or trans women. But with 33 million people filing for unemployment since the coronavirus pandemic began — and 20% of renters not paying May rent before the 6th — advocates say more tenants are vulnerable and at risk of harassment than ever before.
“If you think about #MeToo and attention to sexual harassment and employment, that affected women of all economic classes,” Sandra Park, senior attorney at ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, told BuzzFeed News. “This issue has always targeted low-income women particularly, but given the pandemic and widespread loss of jobs, I do wonder whether we will see more persuasive sexual harassment in housing than we have seen previously … because it may well end up targeting women from different economic classes.”
The National Fair Housing Alliance surveyed its 80 fair housing groups across the country and found 13% were seeing an uptick in sexual harassment complaints.
The Department of Justice has said it is looking into reports of housing providers trying to exploit the COVID-19 crisis to sexually harass tenants, which is a crime under the federal Fair Housing Act.
“It is always despicable to exploit vulnerabilities by sexually harassing those in need of housing,” said US Attorney for Vermont Christina Nolan, one of the leaders of the DOJ response, in a statement. “Doing so during a global pandemic, when so many are struggling just to make ends meet, is particularly abhorrent.”
“This conduct will not be tolerated,” said Nolan, “and they will be held accountable.”
After having first reported in April that some advocates were seeing an increase in complaints of landlords pressuring tenants for sex when they could not afford rent due to the coronavirus pandemic, BuzzFeed News was contacted by multiple readers with their own stories of intimidation.
One was Jerry Miles, a 20-year-old college student in Indianapolis who was desperate for a place to live when he found a room in February in a shared house. Prior to that, Miles had temporarily been staying with a family friend after his father was jailed.
But on March 26, as the coronavirus pandemic prompted rolling government shutdowns, his boss informed him that his hours working as a valet would probably drop from 35 a week to none. Miles reached out to his new landlord informing him of the situation. They agreed that when his $1,200 stimulus check came from the government, he would give $1,000 to his landlord to cover two months of rent upfront.
On April 10, the landlord pulled up in front of Miles’ home, just as Miles was heading off to do deliveries for Postmates. The landlord asked where the rent money was. Miles replied that he didn’t have it yet and that he was still waiting for the stimulus check. That’s when, according to Miles, the landlord said he had to pay the rent because Miles surely did not want the landlord to come over and rape him.
In shock, Miles replied no, he said. His landlord then said he would only be able to last five minutes, so he’d have to bring friends, insinuating they would gang-rape him. According to Miles, his landlord told him he and his friends would have to do it every day until the debt was paid, and that Miles should consider prostituting himself. Miles said he laughed awkwardly and told the landlord the conversation made him uncomfortable. The landlord eventually drove away.
“It was really disgusting. I was beyond shocked,” said Miles. “I’ve never heard a landlord talk to somebody like that in my life.”
Immediately, Miles texted his best friend Mariah Nuñez, 18, asking if he could move in with her and her boyfriend. Messages between them show Miles describing the exact conversation to her moments after it happened, and Nuñez confirmed their authenticity to BuzzFeed News. Miles slept in Nuñez’s den for over a week, before finding a new apartment.
When contacted by BuzzFeed News, the landlord, who owns multiple properties in the area, denied making the threats to Miles. “That’s the most ludicrous thing. I’m kind of insulted,” said the landlord, whom BuzzFeed News is not naming because he has not been charged with a crime. He said the conversation was him just asking Miles, “How’s your rent coming? When can you expect to see some money?”
Miles chose not to contact authorities, but John Floreancig, general counsel at Indianapolis Legal Aid, encouraged tenants facing harassment to contact their local legal aid or fair housing organization for support.
In the last five weeks, his organization has received 3,700 calls from people, the majority of them tenants concerned with eviction. “Legally, there’s really nothing a landlord can do right now in terms of eviction issues,” said Floreancig, pointing out the eviction moratoriums around the country.