For Judy White, the months-long battle with her landlord started with a wink.
In 2013, White was renting a four-bedroom house in St. John’s. At first, she said, the flirting didn’t bother her much.
Then her boyfriend moved out, leaving her alone and short on money.
“That’s when it got real bad,” White said, describing her landlord’s monthly calls, in which he’d ask for sex in exchange for a discount on rent.
“I just kept pushing it off. You know, saying, he’s got to be joking. He has to be joking. Because who does this?”
According to survey results from a local renters group released last month, White isn’t alone.
A third of 80 respondents to the online questionnaire, created by the Newfoundland and Labrador Tenant Support Group and shared on Facebook, said a landlord had solicited them for sex. Half of those requests offered a rental discount as incentive.
Complicates ‘landlord-tenant relationship’
The results sparked one of two reactions among group members, said the group’s moderator, Sherwin Flight.
Some argued a sex-for-shelter trade, if it’s between two consenting adults, is a private matter. Others, like Flight, have concerns.
“It’s really more about the balance of power in the landlord-tenant relationship,” Flight said, pointing out that a spurned landlord could try to evict a tenant.
Flight said for a single mother or low-income student, that prospect could compel them to accept the request when they otherwise wouldn’t.
The overwhelming majority of respondents to the survey identified as women under the age of 34.
Const. James Cadigan, spokesperson for the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, said consent can’t be provided if there’s an abuse of authority or trust at play. “Sex acts are to be voluntary,” he said.
Depending on the case, he said, that could mean laying criminal charges against a landlord engaging in these arrangements.
While Flight acknowledges the small sample size of the survey, he said feedback has been in line with other complaints he’s heard from tenants, pointing to the questionnaire as a catalyst for surfacing the issue.
Anti-exploitation advocates echo Flight’s observations. Heather Jarvis, program co-ordinator with the Safe Harbour Outreach Project, said it’s an ongoing issue.
“Some landlords, particularly landlords who are men and who have a great deal of wealth, have been sexually harassing, sexually coercing and sexually exploiting some of their tenants,” Jarvis said.
She said landlords who do this generally target young women and vulnerable populations — and short of bringing the issue to court, there’s little a victim can do to protect themselves from the threat of eviction.
“That’s called exploitation,” said Mary Fearon, executive director of the Blue Door Program at Thrive, a social services non-profit in St. John’s. In her line of work, she said, “we hear that a lot.”
COVID-19 restrictions haven’t helped. When the provincewide DRL bus service stopped running in March, Fearon said program co-ordinators had to extract someone living outside St. John’s and bring them to safety by cab.
Financially strapped and finding herself in a hard position at the time her landlord persisted with the offers, Judy White said she considered relenting.
“As much as it turned my stomach, that probably was my only way to make it that month,” she said. “And I think that’s why he was doing it … it just made me feel like he was trying to take advantage of me.”
After about a dozen requests, all explicitly rejected, White’s landlord showed no sign of stopping.
One day, she recalled, “at four o’clock one afternoon, I decided that I couldn’t live in this house anymore.”
By the next morning, White was packed and gone. But for tenants facing homelessness, that’s not an option.
Flight hopes his online survey at least makes people realize it’s happening.
“It’s just one of those things that, given the nature of the issue, people aren’t overly inclined to talk about in public,” he said. “It’s hard to solve a problem when no one knows that the problem exists at all.”