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"Educating our communities and elected officials about the needs of survivors in our local cities and towns requires year round focus. JDI is our pathway to informing and influencing the state and national agenda to end sexual and domestic violence." ~ Karen Cavanaugh, JDI board member and Executive Director of Womanshelter/Companeras, pictured here with a JDI delegation meeting with Congressman Niki Tsongas

Rental Protections For Abuse Victims Gaining Steam in House

By Colleen Quinn


STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, AUG. 22, 2012….Victims of domestic violence will have greater leeway to end their rental leases to protect their safety without fear of financial penalty under a bill moving toward passage in the Legislature.

Domestic violence victims, as well as rape, sexual assault and stalking victims will be able to end their leases if the violent act against them occurred within three months of them giving written notice of their intent to leave.

The three month stipulation for ending a lease was included in the bill to alleviate landlords’ fears that domestic violence victims could move on short notice even if the abuse they suffered happened well in the past, according to domestic violence victim advocates.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), was unanimously approved by the Senate on July 30, the day before formal legislative sessions ended. House lawmakers gave it initial approval on Monday, during an informal session when any one lawmaker can block a bill.

Those who work with domestic violence victims said they have fought for nearly a decade to change lease laws to give abuse victims more freedom to move. Lifting restrictions on leases for abuse victims will remove a barrier to leaving a dangerous situation, they said.

Typically, in most rental contracts and leases, a tenant who breaks a lease early can be held liable to pay rent for the months remaining on the agreement.

Suzanne Dubus, chief executive officer at the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center that helps victims of domestic violence in the Merrimack Valley , said often an abuse victim will stay with their abuser if the landlord would hold both parties responsible for the payout on the lease. The possibility of paying rent for an apartment they no longer live in makes leaving unaffordable for most abuse victims, she said.

“This will give survivors options. To leave an abusive relationship is already tough enough, and to pile on to that financial penalties… It is not going to be a panacea. What it does is take away another obstacle,” Dubus said.

This is the closest the legislation has ever come to passing, advocates said. Landlords groups have fought the changes for years.

At lease twelve other states have similar laws, Creem said on the Senate floor before the bill passed.

Maureen Gallagher, policy director at Jane Doe Inc., a statewide coalition that helps domestic violence victims, said there are many landlords in the state who are sympathetic to the plights of abuse victims and will not hold them to their leases.

“There are landlords who are doing this already, who are really helpful and supportive. It is just to ensure that these protections are available to all people in this circumstance,” Gallagher said.

The Small Property Owners Association opposed the bill in the past, but now supports the latest version approved by the Legislature. In the past, the group objected to language surrounding landlords’ inability to evict domestic violence victims.

“We were willing to concede that victims of domestic violence, with proper notice, could quit their tenancy in mid-lease. We felt that wasn’t a difficult thing to give,” Skip Schloming, executive director of SPOA said. “We always opposed the idea that they could never be evicted. That was the real problem.”

Schloming said previous versions of the bill prevented landlords from evicting tenants on any grounds related to domestic violence, including property damage, loud noises, or other incidents that could make it difficult for other tenants. The bill that passed in the Senate, and given initial approval in the House, drops language around eviction.

“The new bill drops out entirely the part we objected to. They will get the right to break their lease, and get their locks changed, but they won’t be an un-evictable tenant. That boggled our minds they would do that,” Schloming said. “We are happy. In fact we support the bill.”

Under the bill (S 2402), landlords can ask tenants to provide proof of their victim status, including copies of a protection order, court record, police report, or verification from a qualified third party such as a police officer, district attorney or medical professional.

After they move, a tenant will be obligated to pay rent for no more than 30 days, or a full rental period. Tenants who decide not to move will have the right to ask their landlord to change the locks on their home if they feel they are under “imminent or ongoing threat” of violence. If the landlord does not change the locks within two days, the tenant has the right to change them, under the bill.

The bill also addresses possible rental discrimination by making it illegal for landlords to refuse to rent to a person who terminated a previous lease because they were a victim of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or stalking.

State lawmakers who had a hand in the crafting of the legislation said it makes it easier for someone to leave an abusive situation.

“It makes it much more likely for that victim to be safe,” said Sen. James Eldridge, co-chair of the Housing Committee that gave the bill a favorable recommendation.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer (D-Barre), whose committee redrafted the bill, said the bill provides more protection for victims, as well as their children, by giving them more flexibility on when they can move.

“Everybody knows a 209A (a restraining order) does not stop bullets or knives,” Brewer said.

Brewer said he “rarely” speculates on the fate of legislation, but he predicted “the prognosis was good,” for the bill to make it to Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk, and be signed by him.

END
8/23/2012


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