Of all the hassles involved in renting and moving into a new apartment or house, fending off the sexual advances of a landlord is usually not one of them.
But it happens. Often enough that Congress and President Lyndon Johnson saw fit, in 1968, to ban that form of sexual harassment in the Fair Housing Act. Courts have ruled that the law forbids landlords or their employees from the “quid pro quo” practice of making tenants submit to sexual acts to keep their homes or have maintenance work done. The law has also been aimed at landlords who engage in such overt sexual conduct toward tenants that it creates an intimidating or offensive atmosphere.
Jeniece Jones, executive director of the Cincinnati tenant advocacy Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), says the Queen City has seen its share of that conduct. “We’ve seen three or four in the last year,” she says. “It varies. A lot of times it’s over repairs, rent or deposits.” Propositions are sometimes made by texting, sometimes during frequent, unwelcome appearances, Jones says.
In 2008, a now-former landlord in Cincinnati paid $1 million to settle what was then — and might still be — the government’s biggest civil penalty for sexual harassment of tenants. The money was paid by James G. Mitchell and Land Baron Enterprises — $890,000 to the 12 women who were the targets of his propositions, $110,000 in fines. The case was triggered by complaints to HOME. The government said Mitchell engaged in unwanted sexual advances and touching, entered the women’s apartments without permission or notice, granted “tangible housing benefits” for sex, and took “adverse action” against those who brushed him off.
Sexually predatory landlords, though, maintain low profiles, mainly because claims are typically handled outside of public courts and quietly settled to ensure tenant privacy. Seldom do cases hit the news wires, such as the Justice Department's Aug. 31, 2016, sex harassment lawsuit against two St. Louis landlords.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says it received 155 claims of sexual harassment of tenants nationwide in 2016. That doesn't include complaints filed through private lawsuits.
Last month, a 40-year-old Price Hill woman claimed that her landlord, John Klosterman, came on to her after she moved into an apartment he owns on Delhi Avenue in Sedamsville, on Cincinnati’s West Side. The woman, Mahogany Beasley, rented the apartment in October for $450 a month and agreed to clean Klosterman’s other apartments for a $75 discount on her rent. Klosterman filed suit Nov. 16 for Beasley’s eviction, claiming she never paid her rent. She filed a countersuit three weeks later, claiming that Klosterman had agreed to accept a late rent payment from Santa Maria Community Services on her behalf.
By then, Beasley says she was too unnerved to remain in the apartment. Soon after moving in and working for Klosterman, she says he called her “baby” by text. And one morning as she headed to a cleanup job at another apartment, she claims the following exchange by text:
Klosterman: “I have a deal for you.”
Beasley: “Gm (Good morning) an what’s that?”
Klosterman: “I’ll explain when we meet. I’m coming in 45 min where you want to meet? I bought you another outfit. Hope it fits.”
The “outfit,” Beasley claims, was a two-piece set of red lingerie, blurry photos of which are now on the phone of her attorney, Michael Mann. She says he wanted her to send him a photo of her wearing it. Klosterman denies her account, which is contained in her countersuit.
“There is no lingerie,” he says. “There were uniforms. We were going into the Airbnb business. I’ve got the uniforms.”
Klosterman, 67, insists he had no sexual interest in Beasley. He says he has never been accused of sexual harassment in his 35 years as a landlord in the Sedamsville area. He says he plans to sue Beasley for defamation.
“Every one of my tenants will tell you I don’t play with tenants, because it’s just not good,” he says. “I joke around. Any of my tenants will tell you I joke around with tenants, but I never cross the line.”
As a landlord, however, Klosterman has other reputational issues. The city of Cincinnati has two outstanding warrants for his arrest for his failure to repair two dilapidated buildings on Delhi Avenue and pay overdue fines. City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething says he was convicted of building code violations last September and was sentenced to 60 days in jail. She says the city suspects he owns up to 70 properties in Sedamsville through different companies.
But the city has no beef with Klosterman over his sexual comportment. That would be a matter for HUD, which enforces the Fair Housing Act. In any case, says Jones of HOME, most tenant gripes about being hit on by landlords go unheard.
“We know it’s woefully unreported,” says Jones of HOME. “We might know about it anecdotally. A lot of time, we might get a call from someone who doesn’t want to report or go the next step. They just want to move or get out of a situation.”
CONTACT JAMES McNAIR: [email protected], @jmacnews on Twitter, 513-914-2736