Joseph Centanni, 74, of Mountainside, a landlord who has owned hundreds of rental units in at least 18 different apartment buildings around Elizabeth, agreed to pay $4.5 million in monetary damages and a civil penalty to resolve a Fair Housing Act (FHA) lawsuit concerning his sexual harassment of tenants and housing applicants for more than 15 years.
This settlement, which still must be approved by the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, is the largest monetary settlement the Justice Department has ever obtained in a case alleging sexual harassment in housing.
The FHA prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, which includes sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Centanni focused his harassment on women and gay or bisexual men.
The monetary damages awarded under the proposed consent decree will compensate the many women and men who were sexually harassed by Centanni.
“The need for housing is a basic human need,” said U.S. Attorney Rachael A. Honig. “Joseph Centanni exploited that need, and the important federal programs that attempt to meet it, by threatening to deny his victims a roof over their heads if they did not submit to his demands for sexual acts.”
“This landmark settlement demonstrates our unyielding commitment to combat sexual harassment in housing and to ensure that no one is subject to discrimination because of their sex, including based on their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Honig.
“This lawsuit and settlement send a clear message that the Department will not stand for landlords who ruthlessly abuse their power to prey on vulnerable members of our society,” said Assistant US Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke. “Having recently marked the fourth anniversary of the launch of the department’s Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative, we stand as committed as ever to aggressively pursue those who engage in this abhorrent conduct.”
“No one deserves to be victimized and preyed upon in their own home,” Department of Housing and Urban Development Inspector General Rae Oliver Davis said. “HUD OIG is committed to investigating with our law enforcement partners to pursue predatory landlords and hold them accountable for this egregious behavior and seek relief for victims.”
The United States’ lawsuit alleged that Centanni’s harassment spanned a period of at least 15 years.
According to the complaint, Centanni demanded sexual favors like oral sex, to get or keep housing; offered housing benefits, such as reduced rent in exchange for sexual favors; touched tenants and applicants in a way that was sexual and unwelcome; and made unwelcome sexual comments and advances to tenants and applicants.
The complaint also alleged that Centanni initiated or threatened to initiate eviction actions against tenants who objected to or refused his sexual advances.
According to the complaint, Centanni participated in the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program—also known as Section 8—and had received about $102,000 each month in Housing Choice Voucher payments.
Under the terms of the proposed consent decree, Centanni will pay $4.39 million in monetary damages to tenants and prospective tenants harmed by his harassment, through a process established in the court order.
Victims who believe that they were subjected to sexual harassment by Centanni should contact the Housing Discrimination Tip Line toll free, at 1-833-591-0291, and select option number one to leave a message.
The proposed consent decree reflects that Centanni has sold all of his residential rental properties. Under the terms of the settlement, he is permanently enjoined from owning and managing residential rental properties in the future.
Centanni will be required to dismiss housing court judgments obtained in proceedings deemed to be retaliatory and take steps to repair the credit of any affected tenants. He must also pay a $107,050 civil penalty to the United States, the maximum civil penalty allowed under the FHA.
There are separate, ongoing, criminal prosecutions against Centanni brought by the Office of the Union County Prosecutor.
To date, that office has charged Centanni with coercing 20 tenants into sexual acts in exchange for financial relief. Centanni is charged with 13 counts of second-degree sexual assault, one count of second-degree attempted sexual assault, and 21 counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact.