Federal authorities filed a lawsuit against a New Jersey landlord who allegedly demanded sexual favors from low-income tenants in exchange for housing assistance.
On Wednesday, the Department of Justice filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against 73-year-old Joseph Centanni, who owns hundreds of rental units in and around Elizabeth, for "violating the Fair Housing Act by subjecting tenants to sexual harassment" since at least 2005.
“The Fair Housing Act protects the right of all persons in our nation to rent a home without suffering sexual exploitation at the hands of abusive landlords. Demanding sexual favors from tenants, especially those who are financially vulnerable, is illegal,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division in a statement. “The Fair Housing Act protects tenants from sexual harassment and retaliation by their landlords, and the Justice Department will hold accountable those who engage in such cruel, depraved, and illegal conduct and will work tirelessly to obtain relief for their victims.”
The complaint alleges Centanni demanded that current and prospective tenants provide him with sexual favors in exchange to keep their place or a reduced rate in rent, and threatened to evict anyone who rejected his advances.
“No one should ever be forced to provide sexual favors, or otherwise endure sexual harassment, as a condition to keep or obtain housing,” U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said in a statement. “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.”
According to the complaint, one victim said she approached Centanni last year because she was having problems paying her rent. He said he'd help her with rental assistance, and she asked what she needed to do in exchange.
"He then brought her to an empty apartment," the court documents alleged. "There, he asked her for a massage and exposed himself. He then subjected her to unwanted sexual touching by using his hands to move both of hers to touch his testicles and penis as she said words to the effect of 'no' and 'don’t do that.'"
Afterward, Centanni helped the woman apply for rental assistance, the lawsuit claims.
Another woman said she went to Centanni last year stating she was having problems finding another place to live after agreeing to move out, the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit states Centanni then took the woman to an empty storage room, after asking the tenant how badly she wanted to stay in her apartment.
“There, Centanni exposed himself and asked for oral sex,” federal prosecutors allege. “Because she felt like she had no choice, the tenant submitted to Centanni’s sexual demand. After this incident, Centanni allowed her to stay in her apartment.”
According to the complaint, Centanni participates in the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program (also known as “Section 8”) and receives approximately $102,000 each month in federal voucher payments.