The latest season of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," its 23rd, premiered Thursday on NBC, picking up where we last left the officers of New York City's 16th Precinct: Fin (Ice-T) and Phoebe (Jennifer Esposito) remain happily unmarried, Deputy Chief Garland (Demore Barnes) is in hot water because of his statements about systemic racism within the NYPD, and the squad is investigating a sex-for-housing scheme that has left undocumented women particularly vulnerable.
But Capt. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Det. Amanda Rollins (Keli Giddish), along with Assistant DA Sonny Carisi (Peter Scanavino) soon find that the trafficking investigation also involves a powerful congressman and his influence might hamper their progress.
As always, SVU balances drama with powerful "ripped from the headlines" issues. The inequality inherent in the landlord/tenant relationship has been an existing issue for the vulnerable populations, including undocumented and trans women, some of whom are sexually exploited by their landlords in exchange for housing. In a 2020 article, Buzzfeed explored this trend, which advocates fear has only increased amidst the pandemic. One subject of Buzzfeed's investigation, a single mother of a toddler (one of the victims in SVU is also a single mother to a young child) told the publication that when she lost her job, her landlord began sexually harassing her and she was eventually forced to leave her home.
The National Fair Housing Alliance has seen an uptick in housing-related sexual harassment and attempted to raise awareness through PSA's and a podcast that details the stories of real-life renters who have been victims.
Under the Fair Housing Act, it's a crime for landlords to sexually harass tenants and the DOJ has dedicated resources to enforcing that law.
“Landlords, property owners, and others who prey on vulnerable tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic should be on notice. We will bring the full resources of the United States Department of Justice to the fight against sexual harassment in housing." said Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for civil rights, in a press release. "We will defend the right of tenants and their families to live peacefully and securely in their homes without the added stress, pain, fear, and turmoil of dealing with sexual predators.”
And while no current members of Congress have been found guilty of a similar trafficking scheme or face accusations of housing harassment, there do seem to be at least some parallels in SVU's storyline to the case of embattled Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who, as the AP reported, "is facing sex trafficking allegations and may have paid underage girls or offered them gifts in exchange for sex." He has denied the allegations.
All of this comes together as SVU looks inward, at the police department it depicts on television, during a time when the very nature of policing, its history of violence and racism, and a reassessment of the justice system as whole are receiving unprecedented attention beyond the bounds of a fictional television procedural.
"Law & Order: SVU" airs Thursday at 8/7c on NBC.