Watchdog Q&A

Published — July 24, 2020

Q&A: Amber Jamieson on how COVID-19 has led to sexual harassment for tenants

(Morning Brew on Unsplash)

Introduction

Lost your job, late on rent — and suddenly you get an indecent proposal from your creepy landlord? With the pandemic driving up unemployment and evictions, that’s a situation that’s becoming increasingly common, especially among women in low-income jobs, reported Buzzfeed’s Amber Jamieson. Jamieson documented a stunning set of transgressions ranging from sleazy to criminal — including a tenant whose landlord reportedly threatened gang rape. Since the pandemic hit there’s been a 13% uptick in sexual harassment complaints, according to a survey of 80 fair housing groups by the National Fair Housing Alliance. Here’s what she said about the story.

*Interview lightly edited for clarity and brevity

How did you get this story?

I first heard about landlords harassing tenants for sex when Alexandria Neason, a friend and Columbia Journalism Review reporter, posted an Instagram screenshot of a local KITV story. In it, the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women reported an increase of complaints, and I immediately reached out to their executive director who gave me specifics about some of the complaints, such as a woman being texted a dick pic from a prospective landlord.

I realized with so many millions unemployed across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic — and lots of people not being able to afford rent — it was unlikely to be happening just in one state. So, I began contacting housing lawyers and fair housing groups across the country.  A lawyer outside of Chicago said their complaints were up three-fold.

But the thing missing were the individual stories of harassment from the tenants themselves. We published a story on April 15 and specifically wrote “Have you been sexually harassed by a landlord during the coronavirus crisis? Contact this reporter” in the middle of the story, in the hope that people affected would reach out and tell me their stories. 

And they did! I also tweeted about wanting to talk to people, and the thread went viral. My inbox and Twitter DMs started filling up with stories from people who’d recently been sexually harassed by their landlords and that’s when we knew we had a follow-up story that could actually go into what it’s like for that to happen, when you’re suddenly unemployed and stuck at home during a pandemic.

What were the challenges of reporting this story and how did you navigate them? 

The main challenge was getting people who had emailed or tweeted at me to then talk to me on the phone! Many of them would say things such as “this is anonymous,” and I would try and explain that when someone is anonymous in a story, they aren’t anonymous to the reporter. Just because you’ve emailed me something, doesn’t mean I will just print that email in a story without verifying information! Particularly because the tweet had gone viral, I was very cautious of making sure there were no bad actors trying to feed me false information.

There was one person who reached out whose story I really, really wanted to include, as it was quite heartbreaking. She was the one person who acknowledged that she’d had to seriously consider the offer from the landlord. But, I couldn’t get her on the phone to confirm who she was and couldn’t get her to confirm information via email, so I wasn’t able to use her story. I hope she’ll eventually speak to me! 

Did you get a sense that some of these vulnerable tenants probably felt they had no choice but to give in to these demands? You mentioned some advice given by experts on how victims should document these incidents and reporting it –– but ultimately, just how effective is this?

These incidents are absolutely the tip of the iceberg — some landlords have always chosen to harass vulnerable tenants, but with millions of people unemployed, increased federal unemployment benefits ending and eviction moratoriums ending, tenants are in even more vulnerable positions than ever before. People should remember that this type of harassment is illegal under federal law and the landlords who do it, often do it multiple times, so reporting it makes a huge difference in being able to help stop it happening to others in the future. 

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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