By Joe Atmonavage, NJ.com
The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against a New Jersey landlord Wednesday alleging the man, who owns hundreds of rental units in and around Elizabeth, sexually harassed tenants and applicants, including demanding sexual favors in exchange for housing, for more than a decade.
The complaint alleges that Joseph Centanni, of Mountainside, used his position as a property owner to allegedly sexually harass tenants and prospective tenants on multiple occasions since at least 2005, according to the complaint.
The complaint outlines numerous occasions in which Centanni allegedly “demanded” sexual favors in exchange for helping women with their housing situation, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges he violated the Fair Housing Act, which protects tenants from sexual harassment and retaliation by their landlords.
“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.”
In one instance in 2019, a female tenant who had told Centanni she was moving out ended up asking him if she could stay, as she was having difficulty finding a new place to live, according to the complaint.
“How bad do you want your apartment?” he asked the tenant, according to the complaint, before taking her to an empty storage room where he allegedly exposed himself and asked for oral sex.
“Because she felt like she had no choice, the tenant submitted to Centanni’s sexual demand,” the complaint says. “After this incident, Centanni allowed her to stay in her apartment.”
Two years prior, a prospective tenant inquired about an apartment at one of Centanni’s properties.
According to the complaint, he took her to an empty laundry room and asked “if I give you an apartment, what will you do for me?”
When the woman didn’t respond, Centanni allegedly asked the woman to “go down on him,” according to the complaint.
The woman resisted his advances and then “Centanni refused to rent an apartment to her,” the complaint says.
The complaint says those examples were part of Centanni’s allegedly “longstanding pattern and practice of illegal sexual harassment of multiple actual and prospective tenants.”
Centanni owns 18 residential properties in and around Elizabeth, according to the complaint, and is actively involved in the management of each property.
He has benefitted immensely from federal funding, according to the complaint.
He has participated in the Housing Choice Voucher Program, a federally-funded rental assistance program that subsidizes the rent of lower-income families, the elderly and people with disabilities, according to the complaint.
As of April, Centanni had approximately 120 tenants with Housing Choice Vouchers and received more than $100,000 each month from the program, according to the complaint.
Raymond Londa, one of Centanni’s attorney, declined to comment on the allegations.