A New Jersey landlord accused of sexually harassing his Section 8 tenants for at least 15 years has agreed to a $4.5 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice — the largest of its kind, officials said.

Joseph Centanni, 74, of Mountainside, owned and managed multiple properties in Elizabeth where federal authorities say he preyed on his renters or housing applicants, extorting sexual acts in exchange for housing. He allegedly exposed himself and demanded oral sex, taking his victims to empty apartments or laundry rooms in his buildings, DOJ officials said.

“No one should have to submit to demands for sex in order to have a place to live,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a call with reporters on Tuesday.

Clarke said if tenants refused, he threatened to evict them.

The consent decree marks the largest settlement the DOJ has reached in a case alleging sexual harassment in housing. The DOJ began investigating Centanni in 2019 and sued him for violating the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination and sexual harassment on the basis of sex or sexual orientation. Authorities said he targeted women and gay or bisexual men.

Centanni’s lawyer, Raymond Londa, said the settlement did not admit any wrongdoing and Centanni continues to “deny the allegations made against him.

Acting U.S. Attorney Rachael A. Honig of the District of New Jersey said Centanni took advantage of people’s need for affordable housing.

“The need for housing is a basic human need,” she said. “Centanni exploited that need, and the important federal programs that attempt to meet it, by threatening to deny his victims a roof over their heads if they did not submit to his demands for sexual acts.”

Elizabeth is New Jersey’s fourth largest city and home to about 130,000 people, most of whom are overwhelmingly Hispanic and earn about $50,000 a year on average, U.S. Census numbers show.

Under the settlement, which still has to be approved by the court, Centanni will no longer be able to manage any future rental properties. He must also take steps to repair the credit histories of his victims he filed eviction proceedings against. DOJ officials said victims will be compensated as part of the settlement.

Centanni is separately facing criminal charges from the Union County Prosecutor's Office involving 20 separate accusers.