ELIZABETH — A longtime landlord accused of sexually preying on dozens of victims over at least 15 years will pay a landmark $4.4 million in damages and a more than $100,000 civil penalty stemming from his sexual harassment of tenants and housing applicants, federal prosecutors announced Tuesday.

Joseph Centanni, 74, of Mountainside, already is facing more than 30 criminal charges, as announced by the Union County Prosecutor's Office at the time of his March arrest and then in July, after additional victims — both female and male — came forward.

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At the time of his arrest last spring, prosecutors confirmed the separate Fair Housing Act lawsuit against Centanni brought by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The settlement, which was pending approval by the U.S. District Court in New Jersey, would be the largest monetary settlement the Department has ever made in a case alleging sexual harassment in housing.

Predatory history

Centanni would meet individuals in his office on West Jersey Street in downtown Elizabeth and the sex acts took place in laundry, storage, or boiler rooms at his properties – or in a sample apartment unit meant to be shown to prospective renters, Union County prosecutors previously said.

U.S. Department of Justice officials on Tuesday echoed those details, saying Centanni would prey on applicants or tenants asking for massages, exposing himself or ask for oral sex in exchange for letting people either keep their housing, or allowing them to move in.

Each of the women and men said they felt as though they had no choice but to meet Centanni’s demands, citing dire personal circumstances such as trying to maintain housing for their young children, prosecutors said.

According to a federal complaint, Centanni received roughly $102,000 each month in housing choice voucher payments, as a participant in the federal program (also known as Section 8).

Under the terms of the federal settlement, he is banned from ever owning or managing any other rental properties, after having sold all of the hundreds of buildings in and around Elizabeth.

Centanni: Biggest federal win

Since launching its sexual harassment in housing initiative in late 2017, the DOJ has filed or settled 25 lawsuits alleging sexual harassment in housing and recovered over $9.5 million for victims.

Nearly half of that amount comes from Centanni's settlement, alone.

The goal of the initiative is to address and raise awareness about sexual harassment by landlords, property managers, maintenance workers, loan officers, or other people who have control over housing.

The federal lawsuit against Centanni was filed in August 2020, according to a Department of Justice official.

Individuals who believe that they were subjected to sexual harassment by Centanni can contact the Housing Discrimination Tip Line toll free, at 1-833-591-0291 and select option number one to leave a message. There also is the U.S. Attorney’s Office Civil Rights Hotline at 855-281-3339 and e-mail can be sent to the Justice Department at fairhousing@usdoj.gov.

Potential information about Centanni also can be shared with the Union County Prosecutor’s Office by contacting Detective Joanne Son at 908-477-1698.

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