Harassed at Home -- by Your Landlord

For four years Mary lived in fear of her landlord, describing herself as a prisoner in her own home.

She went out of her way to avoid him, turning off the lights and TV in her apartment and pretending not to be home every time her doorbell rang, fearing it was him.

At first, she said, he was just "creepy." He sometimes would force his way into her room and poke around, or buzz her apartment from outside to see whether she was home, even though he had keys to the building.

Mary, who asked that her real name not be used, told ABCNEWS.com that her situation took a turn for the worse in 2005, when she was late with her rent.

One night her landlord, Robert Berezin, allegedly made his way into her Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment, pushed her against the door, groped her and forced his tongue into her mouth. When he was leaving, she said, he suggested she could provide sexual favors in lieu of rent.

Landlord Harassment Not Uncommon

No national statistics are kept for what lawyers call "sexual harassment in housing." The term, however, encompasses a broad range of landlord misbehavior that includes making lewd comments, stalking, entering homes to watch women while they sleep or shower, extorting sex for rent or repairs, sexual assault and rape.

What is certain, however, is that low-income women are particularly subject to harassment at home and that landlords or their building managers rarely target just one tenant.

In a suit filed by the New York attorney general last month against Berezin, Mary was just one of a dozen young women from three different buildings Berezin and his partners owned lined up to testify against him.

Lawyers for the state write that Berezin typically "grabbed the woman's face and forced his tongue into the woman's mouth. He used his body to restrain and confine her. These unwanted encounters left [his] victims stunned and frightened. Frequently, they yelled, pushed him and took other steps to get him to leave. … After he had sexually harassed them Berezin also told some of his victims that he would 'work something out with the rent.' He told others that he would make some accommodations with the rent if they would agree to go out with him or have an intimate relationship with him."

Berezin, who has since moved to Skokie, Ill., could not be reached for comment.

After her alleged assault, Mary wanted to take action and looked for help at the Fair Housing Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that provides legal advice on issues regarding discrimination in housing.

Diane Houk, the center's executive director, said women living in "low-income, affordable or rent-stabilized housing" were most likely to be harassed. Harassment, she said, is more likely to occur in rental properties than in sales. Poor women cannot afford to pay market rates in competitive housing markets and often must choose between being harassed at home or living on the streets.

"There's an imbalance of power between tenants and landlords," Houk said, and landlords exploit that position of power.

Jill Maxwell, a third-year student at Brooklyn Law School, was not surprised to learn that some of the harassed tenants in Berezin's buildings might have been law students attending her school.

"It goes to show how many women don't know who to tell," she said. Maxwell is in a unique position to comment, as she has just written a soon-to-be published article on the intersection between class and gender in harassment in housing cases.

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