Downturn in the economy, uptick in exploitation

Downturn in the economy, uptick in exploitation

As a consequence of the economic fallout from COVID-19, nearly one in five renters didn’t make their May payments and housing groups across the US reported a rise in tenants’ sexual harassment complaints. The uptick in complaints is happening despite Attorney General William BarrBill BarrDOJ faces big decision on home confinement Democrats, activists blast Trump DOJ effort to get journalists' phone records Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report MORE’s call last month for U.S. attorneys to investigate early reports of landlords sexually harassing tenants.

As trauma psychologists who study abuse and exploitation, we see signs that the risk of this sort of exploitation will likely get worse as the economic downturn intensifies. Research has identified several groups that are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and also points to lessons on how to address such dangers.

Women are frequently the targets of sexual harassment, but not the only potential victims in a crisis like this. 


Long before the COVID-19 disruptions, older adults faced exploitation of their financial resources and homes — most often by other family members. Now, with depression-era unemployment rates, older adults may be especially vulnerable to exploitation by family members. In addition, people who are in danger of losing their homes will face exploitation as well.

We know from research that people experiencing homelessness — particularly young people, many of whom are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender — are pressured to trade sex for shelter and other basic needs, such as food. The likelihood of this kind of exploitation increases the longer a young person is homeless and is so common that it has its own name: survival sex.

Some states have put moratoriums on evictions and the federal CARES Act temporarily prohibits evictions from federally-financed properties. These temporary, limited protections delay eviction, but do not forgive rents or solve longer-term housing issues. People not eligible to delay evictions may now have to negotiate with landlords to be able to stay in their homes. 

The situation increases the risk that abusive landlords will pressure tenants for sex, harass them, or compel them to do other labor while the police are reticent to arrest landlords based on tenuous evidence. Stay-at-home orders and the financial fallout from the economic downturn may make moving difficult for tenants who are being harassed and increase housing instability.

Victims of domestic violence can tell you about the realities of housing instability and homelessness, particularly when landlords don’t know or ignore the law. It’s illegal for landlords to kick victims of domestic abuse out of federally-subsidized housing, and housing more generally in some states, because of what their abusers do. Yet, landlords who grow weary of the police showing up or damage caused to their property by the violence being perpetrated sometimes threaten to evict victims, or are reticent to take victims on as new tenants. Victims who are evicted or who are forced to flee abuse face a shortage of emergency or transitional housing options.


Kazi Houston, Legal Director at the Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center, notes that “a large number of our clients have concerns about housing instability, and we’re hearing that even more right now. When victims of crime do not have access to safe and affordable housing, their options to leave dangerous situations, to safely seek assistance from law enforcement, to enforce protection orders, and to prevent additional exploitation and victimization are limited. Ensuring that housing protections and resources are expanded is a vital part of addressing public safety.”

Research points to what is needed. First, there must be fast and broad public education about tenants’ rights and housing options so that people know what to do if their landlords are breaking the law, which includes harassing or taking advantage of them. Second, policymakers, police, and prosecutors must act now to increase emergency and transitional housing for individuals who cannot stay in their current housing because of harassment, domestic violence, or other consequences from the pandemic. 

Those emergency and transitional options must also be safe in the current health and housing crisis. They should not cram people into tight or other housing conditions where they cannot socially distance or are at risk of further abuse. Third, future stimulus packages must address rent forgiveness or create voucher programs to ensure that people with stable housing do not need to flee abuse and harassment. Finally, funding is needed for housing advocates who can do the time-intensive work required to get people into stable housing.

It is better to use public funds now to pay for things like educating people about housing laws or providing emergency housing and vouchers rather than pay later when people face the very real physical and psychological harm as a consequence of exploitation. Paying today and preventing harm should be an easy choice.

Anne P. DePrince, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver whose trauma research focuses on the consequences of violence against women and children. 

Joan M. Cook, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11.