A New Jersey landlord accused of coercing more than 20 tenants into sexual acts in exchange for housing has reached a landmark $4.5 million settlement with the Department of Justice (DOJ). Joseph Centanni, 74, owned hundreds of rental units in Elizabeth, NJ, many of which accepted Housing Choice Vouchers. Mr. Centanni collected more than $100,000 a month through his participation in the voucher program. He has been accused of sexual misconduct by tenants and prospective tenants since 2005. This case is several years in the making. The process began with an investigation in 2019 by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, followed by a federal civil suit filed by the DOJ in August 2020, criminal charges brought by local law enforcement in March 2021, and finally the settlement reached in December 2021.
According to the suit filed by DOJ in 2020, Mr. Centanni demanded sexual favors from tenants who were trying to obtain or keep their housing or reduce their rent. In some cases, Mr. Centanni threatened tenants with eviction after they rejected his sexual advances. The lawsuit is the result of a joint investigation by the HUD’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Office and the Office of the Inspector General. A separate investigation conducted by the Elizabeth Police Department and the Prosecutor’s Office’s Special Victims Unit found Mr. Centanni purposely targeted people who were financially struggling, extremely low-income, homeless, or facing eviction. The criminal charges brought by the Office of the Union County NJ Prosecutor include 13 counts of second-degree sexual assault, one count of second-degree attempted sexual assault, and 21 counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact.
The terms of the DOJ settlement reveal Mr. Centanni has sold all rental properties and is permanently banned from owning and managing rental properties in the future. Additionally, any housing court proceedings brought against victims will be dismissed if it is found to be retaliatory in nature. Furthermore, he will be required to take the steps to repair the credit of the victims. Once approved by the U.S. District Court of New Jersey, this will be the largest monetary settlement in a case dealing with sexual harassment in housing.
The DOJ lawsuit was filed based on Mr. Centanni’s behavior being a violation of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing providers from discriminating based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. In this case, the harassment was based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as Mr. Centanni targeted women and gay or bisexual men. The Fair Housing Act outlines two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile environment. Mr. Centanni is accused of the former, which is defined by HUD as “harassment that occurs when a housing provider requires a person to submit an unwelcome request to engage in sexual conduct as a condition of obtaining or maintaining housing or housing related services.”
“Unfortunately, this is not a unique case,” said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing & Community Development Network of New Jersey. “There are similar stories across the country of vulnerable tenants struggling to get by, exploited and harmed by predatory landlords. It is appalling to see this happen anywhere, but especially here in New Jersey where it is already difficult to find an affordable place to rent. We applaud the DOJ for making an example of this deplorable individual. We hope it will send a message that sexual harassment and predatory behavior will not be tolerated and there will be consequences.”
The Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative was launched by the DOJ Civil Rights Division in 2017 to address cases where individuals are being sexually harassed by landlords, property managers, maintenance workers, or anyone else who is involved with or has control over one’s housing.
If you believe you or anyone you know is a victim of sexual harassment in housing, you can submit a report to the DOJ Civil Rights division here. You can also call the hotline at 855-281-3339 or email the Justice Department at [email protected].