As cities and towns across the country adopt new “crime-free housing” ordinances, many domestic violence victims face the choice between calling the police on their abusers or getting evicted, as the New York Times reported over the weekend. That’s because landlords can kick out tenants who have a certain number of visits in many communities.
These communities began passing ordinances 25 years ago that license landlords or even force them to deal with “disruptive” tenants who get a lot of visits from the police. For instance, more than 100 municipalities in Illinois have adopted these rules, according to a new report from the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. One-third of nuisance citations issued to landlords in Milwaukee were generated by domestic violence.
In June, RH Reality Check’s Annamarya Scaccia reported the story of Lakisha Briggs, whose abusive boyfriend showed up at her Norristown, PA apartment and assaulted her, leaving her with a four-inch wound in her neck. Briggs refused to call the police for fear of eviction, because she already had been given three strikes under the town’s ordinance as a result of police calls — two of which were due to domestic violence. Thankfully a neighbor called and she was taken to the hospital. Three days later, her landlord was told his license was rescinded and Briggs would have ten days to vacate. While the American Civil Liberties Union was able to stop that eviction, the town has proposed a new adaptation, which Briggs is still fighting.
Briggs’s story is unfortunately somewhat common thanks to “crime-free” ordinances. Scaccia found 59 other known ordinances throughout the country similar to the one in Norristown. Gwen Katis, director of the Illinois Domestic Violence Helpline, told the Times that her group gets “several calls a month” from women who have to choose between calling the police or facing eviction. She got a call recently from a woman whose boyfriend had choked her but whose landlord told her that if she called the police one more time, he would evict her.
Victims do have some protection: According to analysis by legal advocacy group Legal Momentum, 25 states and DC have laws that in theory would protect a victim of domestic violence from eviction because she called the police, although they range from very weak protection, such as in North Carolina where housing discrimination is prohibited against tenants based on their status as victims, to much stronger language, such as laws in Minnesota and Texas that specifically prohibit landlords from interfering with victims’ rights to call the police. The federal Violence Against Women Act also protects victims who live in federally subsidized housing.
However, many of these laws also require documentation of domestic violence and/or protection orders. Counselors for victims point out that the police don’t always perceive abusive situations and the victims may not always speak up.
Without housing, victims often have few places to turn to regain their safety. Twenty percent of homeless women cite domestic violence as the primary reason. Some may turn to shelters, but many have faced such severe funding shortages that they have reduced beds, and the problem is getting worse.
Compounding the problem for some is that in many states, it is legal to fire a victim of domestic violence for reasons related to her situation as a victim. Just six states have laws barring employment discrimination against victims. California is also pushing forward such a bill. A bill at the federal level was introduced in March but does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.