A New Jersey landlord who owns multiple buildings and receives about $100,000 a month in federal voucher payments sought sexual favors from low-income tenants in exchange for housing aid, federal authorities allege in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for New Jersey claims that landlord Joseph Centanni violated the Fair Housing Act because he “subjected tenants and housing applicants to sexual harassment on multiple occasions since at least 2005.”
Centanni, who owns 18 buildings in or around Elizabeth, just south of Newark, threatened to evict tenants who refused his sexual advances, the U.S. Justice Department said in the complaint, calling his alleged pattern of behavior “severe” and “pervasive.”
The lawsuit accuses the landlord of demanding that “tenants provide him with sexual favors;” “offering to grant tangible housing benefits … to tenants in exchange for sexual favors, including oral sex;” and “exposing his genitals to actual and prospective tenants,” among other allegations
Many of Centanni’s tenants are part of the Housing Choice Voucher Program, under which he receives approximately $102,000 a month in payments, according to the complaint.
In one alleged incident in 2019, a tenant who had planned to move out asked to stay in her apartment because she was struggling to find a new home.
“Centanni asked her words to the effect of ‘how bad do you want your apartment?’ and took her to an empty storage room,” the complaint says. There, the landlord exposed himself, and asked for oral sex in exchange for her being allowed to continue living in the building.
The tenant, feeling she had no choice, “submitted to Centanni’s sexual demand,” the suit says.
The suit is seeking damages from Centanni for the victims and civil penalties. It comes after the a joint investigation between the DOJ, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Office and the Office of Inspector General.
“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 in a statement. “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.”
A phone message left for Centanni on Thursday morning did not receive an immediate response. A lawyer representing him also could not immediately be reached by phone.