When Kimberly Malchow moved into a one-and-a-half story house in Richfield in 2008, she figured she was lucky. She could manage the $800 rent, and there was a yard for her dogs and kids.
"This is the house where I thought my children and I were going to have a home," she said. "And it was hell, it wasn't home."
Malchow, 42, is a slight woman with piercing blue eyes. Her landlord remarked on her appearance shortly after she moved in, she said. His tone rubbed her the wrong way, and then his observations grew more inappropriate.
"I would hear comments about my breasts all the time," she said. "That was really uncomfortable. That was the last thing you expected a landlord to say to you — that you're beautiful, and that you have a nice shape..."
She said her landlord, Harvey Tam, called her up to five times a day, repeatedly visited her without warning, and even barged in on her when he heard she was breastfeeding her baby.
After two years of living in the house, Malchow confronted Tam and asked him to stop harassing her. She said he responded by evicting her.
Malchow admits she was late on her payments, but she says Tam had always told her he would work with her because he was behind on repairs.
Malchow said she wound up homeless for several months and had to split up her family.
All of these allegations are outlined in a lawsuit Malchow filed earlier in December. Contacted by MPR News, Tam said the claims were false. But he wouldn't elaborate, and his attorney declined to comment on the case.
Malchow knows she's not the "perfect" victim. She has three additional evictions on her record. And she says it might be hard for others to believe her story, especially when they learn that months after she was evicted, she moved back into the same house for a second time, with Harvey Tam as her landlord.
"I was scared and kind of happy at the same time, because I could bring my family back together again — my children and my animals — and kind of feel normal," she said.
She said she complained to Tam again in 2013 about the alleged harassment, and he evicted her a second time.
Experts say it's women like Malchow, with checkered rental histories and limited housing options, who are the most vulnerable.
Louise Fitzgerald, a retired professor at the University of Illinois who has studied sexual harassment in rental housing, said that in many of the cases she's seen, the landlord has demanded sex in lieu of rent.
Most victims are poor and feel trapped, she said.
"Most of them are single mothers, they're not well educated," Fitzgerald said. "They're usually not employed, or they're underemployed. Many of them don't even know this is illegal, and nobody really tells them. So they don't know to complain, or they're afraid to complain."
When Fitzgerald got involved in her first case 20 years ago, "I thought it was an aberration — that this guy was just a weirdo predator," she recalled. "But when the Justice Department started involving me in some of their cases, that's when I realized it's not unusual."
What distinguishes such cases from workplace harassment, she said, "is the very direct demand for sexual cooperation. It's like a sexual supermarket for them."
She said it's hard to say how many of these cases exist, because they're underreported and no one tracks them. But she's testified in several cases the federal government has brought against predatory landlords, and she said the harassment appears to be common.
Few private attorneys are willing to take on these cases because they're generally not lucrative, she said.
Kimberly Malchow's attorney, Jill Gaulding of the nonprofit Gender Justice, said some landlords feel they can intrude on a tenant's privacy simply because they hold a key to the property. Gaulding's group and the tenants' rights organization HOME Line are also representing another woman who alleges her landlord installed a camera in her bathroom so he could spy on her while she was in the shower.
"There's this notion of ownership and entitlement," Gaulding said. "There seems to be a sense by some landlords, that when they're renting property to women, that's also in a sense giving them access to the women as sex objects."
Over the past decade in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the federal government has sued abusive landlords with some success. In one case, the property manager of a rooming house in New Richmond, Wis., was accused of sexually harassing a homeless woman who sought residence there. As part of a settlement with the government, he's been permanently barred from managing rental properties.
But such cases aren't easily won. Kimberly Malchow took her allegations to the state Department of Human Rights, and the department dismissed her complaint. A memo explaining the decision said Malchow should have brought up her concerns in housing court as part of the eviction process. Malchow said her attorney during the eviction process advised her not to raise the harassment as a defense. Gaulding said these tenants are essentially trapped. The landlords, she said, have enormous power.
"Not only do you have the risk of eviction, but you can't object to the fact that the eviction is retaliatory in any real-world sense," she said. "It puts an amazing power in the hands of abusive landlords, if they choose to be abusive."
People who work on such cases say that if a landlord harasses one tenant, there are other victims out there.
"Most of the time, they're not isolated incidents," said Lael Robertson, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society in Minneapolis. "Oftentimes we've gone back to other women they've rented to, and they'll say, 'Oh yeah, that happened to me, too.'"
But Robertson says many of these cases are hard to prove. Her office is currently litigating one case, and another is pending.
Kimberly Malchow is now living with her mother in St. Paul. She says most people know about sexual harassment in the workplace, but they need to know that it also happens in rental housing.
"It's so much different when it's in your home," she said. "My home was supposed to be safe."