Federal authorities in New Jersey say a man who owns multiple buildings and receives about $100,000 a month in federal voucher payments demanded sexual favors from his low-income tenants in exchange for housing aid.
According to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for New Jersey, Joseph Centanni violated the Fair Housing Act because he "subjected tenants and housing applicants to sexual harassment on multiple occasions since at least 2005."
Authorities allege that Centanni, who owns at least 18 buildings in and around Elizabeth, New Jersey, threatened to evict the tenants who refused his sexual advances. The landlord allegedly demanded sexual favors to get or keep housing, and offered housing benefits like reduced rent in exchange for sexual favors. According to the complaint by the U.S. Justice Department, Centanni would touch tenants and applicants in a way that was "sexual and unwelcome, and made unwelcome sexual comments and advances to tenants and applicants."
Federal prosecutors called Centanni's alleged pattern of behavior "severe" and "pervasive."
“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. “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.”
Centanni participated in the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program (also known as Section 8) and received up to $102,000 every month in vouchers.
One tenant who planned to move out in 2019, asked Centanni if she could stay in her apartment because she was struggling to find a new home. Centanni allegedly asked the victim how badly she wanted to stay in the apartment, then took her to an empty storage room. There, Centanni exposed himself and asked for oral sex in exchange for allowing the tenant to remain in her apartment.
The tenant, who felt she had no choice, "submitted to Centanni's sexual demand," the suit says.
The lawsuit was filed by the U.S. Justice Department following a joint investigation with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Office and Office of Inspector General.
The lawsuit is seeking damages from Centanni for the victims as well as civil penalties.
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