There are lots of barriers survivors of domestic violence face when searching for housing. Sandra Park, an ACLU attorney at the Women’s Rights Project who focuses on the rights of domestic violence survivors, shares one example.
Park worked with a woman called Hope who seemed to be on track to rent an apartment. Hope placed a deposit and the property management company gave her an application that asked for the social security numbers of her children. Due to her history as a domestic violence survivor, Hope had changed her own social security number and her identity. She had full custody of her children and their father had no visitation rights.
The property management company said they would run a check on the children’s social security numbers—a move that Hope feared could alert her abuser to her location. She refused to give the numbers and was turned down for the apartment. She turned to the ACLU, which filed a Fair Housing Act complaint on her behalf. Ultimately, the management company compensated Hope and changed its policy.
Discrimination Is Real
Research confirms that survivors of domestic violence are sometimes discriminated against when they look for housing. A study done by the Washington, D.C.-based Equal Rights Center found that advocates searching for housing on behalf of a domestic violence victim were either denied housing or offered less advantageous terms, compared to comparable people with no connection to domestic violence.
For example, the domestic violence advocates might be told that they had to meet a landlord in person, or that their move-in date was too soon, or that they would receive a call back with more information while another caller was given the information right away. In some cases the call back never came.
Another study, by the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York and conducted in a similar fashion, found that 27.5% were flatly refused housing or failed to receive follow up.
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There are various reasons landlords might hesitate to rent to a domestic violence survivor:
● The landlord may be uncomfortable dealing with a survivor
● The landlord may believe the abuser will cause issues
● The survivor may have bad credit because the abuser ruined their credit history
● The survivor may have a history of eviction that’s linked to the domestic violence
● The survivor may have a criminal conviction for conduct stemming from self-defense
What Can Survivors Do?
It may help to be honest with your potential future landlord. “If you have negative criminal, credit or tenancy records because of domestic violence and you know the landlord is going to run that kind of check, it can go a long way to be up front and explain why you have that history,” Park says. “In some cases it makes sense to try to provide that information to the landlord, so when the check comes back they don’t throw away your application.”
She says if you believe you’re facing discrimination, you might want to seek legal assistance. Nationally, the Fair Housing Act and the Violence Against Women Act both offer some protection.
The Fair Housing Act doesn’t prohibit discrimination based on domestic violence status. But it does prohibit discrimination based on gender. Since the majority of domestic violence victims are women, in some cases you can make the argument that discriminating against a female domestic violence survivor is discrimination based on gender.
The Violence Against Women Act does offer protection for domestic violence survivors. But it only applies to federally funded and Section 8 housing. If you are applying to a property and you’re covered under the Violence Against Women Act, you may want to notify your landlord about your protection. “Some landlords will not know about the Violence Against Women Act at all, so it can be helpful for them to be educated about that,” Park says.
Some state and local laws also prohibit housing discrimination based on domestic violence status. The National Housing Law Project lists state laws that offer this protection.
David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, recommends keeping careful records as you search for housing, in case you need evidence to prove discrimination.
“Save your texts, emails and voicemails. If you have evidence you want to protect don’t destroy it, save a copy. Once you start making noise that you think you’re being discriminated against people will be more cautious,” he warns.
If statements are made in conversation or over the phone, write down your recollection of the conversation right away and email the notes to yourself or someone you trust so you have some documentation of what was said, he recommends.
Though these processes can seem tedious and stressful at times, there’s also the old adage of not giving up. Should four places turn you down, try a fifth. There’s always the option to fight discrimination from previous denials while still settling into a place that doesn’t discriminate. On that note, make sure you know what landlords are and aren’t allowed to do in “Your Rights as aTenant.”
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