In July 2021, Joseph Centanni, the owner, and landlord of hundreds of rental units across 18 properties in Elizabeth, New Jersey, was arrested for the second time after seven more tenants came forward alleging sexual assault by Centanni, bringing the total number of alleged victims to 20 since 2016. In total, Centanni was charged with eight counts of second-degree sexual assault, one count of second-degree attempted sexual assault, and 14 counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact.
According to recent news reports, as of October 2021, Centanni has settled seven out of eight civil lawsuits, with one remaining open. No details have been released as to what the settlements entail.
The Union County Prosecutor’s office filed 35 criminal charges, claiming he sexually assaulted or harassed 20 different victims who were his tenants over the years. According to other media reports, Centanni allegedly described the sex acts he solicited from his victims as a quid pro quo, agreeing to offer them rent reductions, delays in eviction, or other forms of financial assistance in exchange for sexual favors.
Prosecutors state that Centanni used his “position of power and privilege to prey on the vulnerabilities and desperations of others.” The criminal complaints filed against him detail how the landlord allegedly coerced vulnerable tenants, prospective tenants, single mothers, a homeless man, and soon-to-be evicted tenants — into performing sexual favors in exchange for free housing or financial relief.
According to one lawsuit, a former tenant claims that Centanni allegedly forced her to perform non-consensual oral sex on Centanni whenever she was late or short on her rent to not face eviction.
In another lawsuit, a man states that Centanni offered to clear his owed rent “by demanding sexual favors, as a quid pro quo” when he was late paying his rent in 2019. The victim also claimed that Centanni made sexual advances again when he fell on hard times during the coronavirus pandemic but ultimately refused Centanni’s alleged demands.
Authorities said that each of the victims reported feeling as though they had no choice but to concede to Centanni’s demands, citing desperate personal circumstances such as trying to maintain housing for their young children. The lawsuits claim that the victims would meet Centanni in his office on the 200 block of West Jersey Street in downtown Elizabeth and that the sex acts took place in laundry rooms, storage areas, or boiler rooms at his properties. One victim claims she was assaulted in a sample apartment unit meant shown to prospective renters.
The Department of Justice has also filed a lawsuit against Centanni alleging he violated the Fair Housing Act for sexually harassing tenants and prospective renters for more than a decade. The lawsuit is on pause as the criminal charges play out.
In the eighth lawsuit against Centanni, which remains open, a woman alleges that when she asked Centanni if she could rent an apartment in one of his buildings, he responded, “What are you going to do for me?”
Although Centanni settled seven of the suits, he still denies all allegations made against him.
We’ve all seen stories about selfish profiteers who exploit desperate renters by seeking sex in exchange for payment leniency, even during the pandemic. Trying to sexually exploit the vulnerable, at any time under any circumstances, is of course despicable. But doing so during a financial crisis is even worse. If you or someone you knows has suffered or is suffering this kind of bald-faced intimidation, exploitation or abuse, or if you know someone who has, please contact our law firm at (888) 283-9922 or send an e-mail to sexual abuse lawyer Adam Horowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free consultation.