Advocates for Violence Victims Seek Housing Protections
November 01, 2011
State House News Service, By Kyle Cheney
Property managers around Massachusetts have denied housing opportunities to victims of domestic assault and sexual violence, evicted women who are victims of attacks, and refused to permit victims to nix their leases, advocates for women and victims of violence argued Tuesday, urging lawmakers to support new housing protections.
“What we’re asking is to not hold victims accountable for the crimes against them,” said Maureen Gallagher of Jane Doe Inc. at a State House hearing of the Committee on Housing. “That individual shouldn’t be evicted or prevented from leaving.”
Gallagher was one of eight advocates representing organizations like the ACLU, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and the Women’s Bar Association who contended that stereotypes and stigmas often drive landlords’ actions toward victims of sexual and domestic assault. They urged the committee to back legislation that would permit a victim of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or stalking to “terminate a rental agreement or tenancy” within 90 days of an incident.
Under the bills, owners would have the opportunity to request proof that an assault or domestic violence is occurring, such as an order of protection, or court and police records. Those records must be kept confidential, under the legislation. In addition, owners would be barred from terminating a tenancy, declining to renew a tenancy or barring a renter based on a person’s “status as a victim of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or stalking.”
The bill also permits tenants to request a change of locks within two business days if they believe they are under “an imminent or ongoing threat” of violence and are able to pay a “reasonable” fee.
The bills, sponsored by Rep. Ellen Story (D-Amherst) and Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), are co-sponsored by about two dozen lawmakers.
“This bill is necessary to protect the interests of those women and their families,” said Nancy Cremins, president of the Women’s Bar Association. “Their home should be a safe place to go and you should be able to feel safe and secure that you won’t be evicted or you won’t be able to find a home because you are a victim of domestic violence.”
The pleas from the advocates fell on a short-handed committee. Only five of the committees’ seventeen members – co-chairs Rep. Kevin Honan and Sen. James Eldridge (D-Acton), and Reps. Russell Holmes (D-Boston), Sean Curran (D-Springfield) and Christopher Markey (D-Dartmouth) – attended all or portions of the hearing. Only one other hearing was occurring simultaneously and most lawmakers were expected to be on hand later in the day for votes on redistricting.
Eldridge wondered whether any landlords had proven willing to work with tenants who had experienced domestic violence, and advocates acknowledged that many had been supportive.
“In those situations, the healing process for survivors, their ability to find state housing afterward, has been tremendous,” said Stephanie DeCandia, manager of system advocacy and policy development at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.
The Small Property Owners Association, which represents small rental property and condo owners, opposed the legislation, arguing that the bills were so broadly constructed that any attempt by property owners to evict a household that experiences domestic violence could be construed as discriminatory.
“Given these complications, these bills will backfire, making owners avoid all the more rigorously renting to victims of domestic violence,” said Lenore Monello Schloming, president of the association, in testimony submitted to the committee. He added, “These bills need to be substantially rewritten or turned down.”
Schloming contended said the legislation’s provisions that limit the eviction of domestic violence households to when there is “an actual and imminent threat” could put other tenants in danger.
“[A]n imminent threat is too close to happening to be remedied by the slow process of eviction; eviction needs to happen sooner,” he said.
Schloming also suggested that the bill’s prohibitions on allowing property owners to speak to one another about incidents of domestic violence amount to asking owners to “lie” to one another. “[A]nd where are our freedom of speech rights?” he wondered.
Royce Fuller, a landlord with three properties in Maynard and Acton, said he sympathizes with victims of domestic violence but believes the bill fails to achieve its objectives.
“I’m afraid that this bill does not have a balance between the rights of the victims of domestic violence and the rights of the tenants and the landlord,” he said. “Other tenants need to have a safe environment for their tenants, and the landlords need to have their property protected.”
Fuller noted that in his buildings, he allows tenants to break leases for nearly any reason, so long as they provide 60 days notice.