One woman went to the landlord of her building for help because she was worried she wouldn’t be able to pay her rent. Another tenant was having trouble finding a new home and wanted to know if she could stay in her apartment.
The landlord, who owned several buildings in Elizabeth, N.J., helped both of them — but only after they performed the sexual acts on him that he demanded, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit that was settled this week for $4.5 million, the vast majority of which is supposed to go to victims.
If the agreement is approved by a judge, federal officials said it would be the largest settlement the Justice Department has ever secured in a case involving sexual harassment in housing.
The suit, filed last year, accused the landlord, Joseph Centanni, 74, of harassing tenants in the nearly 20 buildings he owned in and around Elizabeth for at least 15 years. Many of the tenants were vulnerable or in precarious situations, including older people, low-income families and people with disabilities.
Mr. Centanni accepted federal housing vouchers and received more than $100,000 monthly in voucher payments, the authorities said. He has been forced to sell his rental properties as part of the settlement.
Raymond S. Londa, a lawyer for Mr. Centanni, said that the settlement “does not in any way, shape or form constitute an admission or acknowledgment of wrongdoing or liability” and that Mr. Centanni denied the accusations. Mr. Londa said that his client had agreed to the settlement to avoid lengthy litigation.
Mr. Centanni, who lives in Mountainside, N.J., also faces separate criminal charges. He was arrested in March and charged with numerous counts of sexual assault and criminal sexual contact. He was accused of coercing more than a dozen tenants into sex acts in exchange for “financial relief,” according to the Union County prosecutor and the Elizabeth Police Department.
The prosecutor’s office said that it began an investigation based on a referral from the police. The investigators found that Mr. Centanni had targeted both male and female tenants and prospective tenants who were struggling financially, including some who were homeless or faced eviction.
More accusers came forward in the months that followed. Mr. Centanni was arrested again in July and now faces 35 charges related to accusations from 20 people between 22 and 61 years old.
Elizabeth is a heavily working-class city of nearly 130,000 people just south of Newark Liberty International Airport that still offers a large supply of relatively affordable apartments in one of the more expensive regions in the country.
Tenants at several of Mr. Centanni’s former buildings declined to comment on Wednesday, though at least one expressed surprise at the allegations, saying that Mr. Centanni had maintained the building well. At one building, on North Broad Street, a note posted on the door announced that it was under new ownership.
Kristen Clarke, who leads the Justice Department’s civil rights division, told reporters on Tuesday that her office had started an investigation in 2019, after learning of the allegations from the Office of the Inspector General at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The federal lawsuit claimed that Mr. Centanni would take housing applicants or tenants to empty apartments, storage spaces or laundry rooms and expose himself, demand oral sex and force people to touch him.
“If people submitted to his demands, Mr. Centanni allowed them to move in or keep their housing,” Ms. Clarke said. “If people did not submit Mr. Centanni refused to rent to them or evicted them.”
Federal officials built their case relying on the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits sex-based discrimination and harassment. Under the terms of the settlement, Mr. Centanni may not own or manage rental properties and cannot pursue housing court judgments against any former tenants that were obtained in proceedings deemed to be retaliatory.
The agreement gives Mr. Centanni 30 days to deposit $4.4 million in a settlement fund to compensate the dozens of victims already identified — and people who have not yet come forward. They have about six months to do so and the authorities will have additional time to examine their claims. He must also pay $107,000 in penalties to the government.
Rachael Honig, the acting U.S. attorney for New Jersey, said that threats from a landlord can have dire consequences, especially for tenants who are already struggling.
“For many of his victims, if they lost their apartment, or were denied an apartment in the first place, they risk their lives being completely upended,” she said. “They risked losing the home in which they lived with their children. They risked not being able to find another landlord who would accept their housing assistance vouchers.”
Kevin Armstrong contributed reporting.