Courtesy of Principal Deputy Director Bea Hanson of the Office on Violence Against Women; Director Ron L. Davis of the Office on Community Oriented Policing Services; and Assistant Attorney General Karol V. Mason of the Office of Justice Programs
Victims of domestic violence are under constant threat – of abuse, of poverty, of being denied the chance to live a happy, healthy life. Sadly, many also face the very real prospect of losing their homes, due not solely to the actions of an abuser but to policies that may unintentionally punish victims of crime for seeking police protection.
On Sept. 13, 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued legal guidance to help local authorities and housing providers protect residents. The guidance addresses the potential Fair Housing Act (FHA) violations when nuisance abatement ordinances and crime-free lease provisions are enforced against victims of domestic violence and other crimes. Nuisance abatement ordinances – or the policies and practices associated with them – may require or encourage landlords to evict tenants for “excessive” use of police services, and crime-free lease provisions may allow landlords to evict tenants based on one incident of alleged criminal activity.
In addition to the safety risks they present, these ordinances and provisions potentially have discriminatory effects on victims of domestic violence, the majority of whom are women.
We know that domestic violence is widespread in the United States, and calls related to reporting incidents of domestic violence are the largest category of calls for emergency services in many jurisdictions. Nuisance abatement ordinances typically seek to sanction property owners for “excessive” calls for emergency services associated with a property, regardless of the reason for the call. For example, a mother who has called the police three times in a six-month period because her children are in danger from an abuser could be considered an “excessive” user of emergency services. The property owner could then face sanctions, including fines or other administrative penalties. Unfortunately, landlords often address the problem by evicting the tenant.
Evictions can have serious long-term consequences for victims of domestic violence and their families. A number of studies have shown that 22 to 57 percent of homeless women report that domestic violence is the immediate cause of their homelessness. And even more tragically, 80 percent of homeless mothers with children say they have experienced domestic violence.
Even when nuisance abatement ordinances and crime-free lease provisions make exceptions for victims of domestic violence, much can also depend on the discretion of law enforcement agencies and housing providers. They may, for example, characterize an incident as excessive noise, disorderly conduct or property damage rather than domestic violence. Local authorities and law enforcement agencies should be mindful of these concerns as they exercise ordinance enforcement discretion and when considering whether to support or promote the passage of a nuisance abatement ordinance or crime-free housing ordinance, particularly when they affect vulnerable populations, such as victims of domestic violence or people with disabilities.
Cities, counties, law enforcement agencies, housing providers and other stakeholders should review the HUD guidance and make sure their nuisance abatement ordinances, crime-free housing ordinances and crime-free housing programs are fair and do not discriminate. Those who receive Department of Justice (DOJ) funds should be on guard for potential FHA violations and bear in mind that DOJ grants prohibit discrimination. Domestic violence victims are already forced to make too many impossible choices. They should not have to choose between homelessness and their own safety.
Recipients of financial assistance from the DOJ may contact the Office for Civil Rights at the Office of Justice Programs if they have any questions regarding compliance with applicable non-discrimination provisions at (202) 307-0690.