Your abusive partner is gone—and you’re ready to get on with your life. You want to stay in your apartment, but there’s a broken door, a hole in the wall or a shattered bathroom mirror, the frightening aftermath of violent outburst by your ex-partner. Your landlord says you need to pay for these damages, even though your abuser is to blame for them. What can you do?
Unfortunately, if you stay in the apartment and the abuser leaves, it’s easier for landlords to go after you for money, simply because they can find you. But you have options.
Start by looking to see what protection your state offers. If yours provides legal protection for domestic violence survivors, a local legal aid office or domestic violence nonprofit may be able to help you exercise your right to stay in your apartment if you are unable to negotiate that yourself.
Another resource to try is crime victim compensation. It’s available in every state, though what it covers exactly varies and is dependent on a crime having been reported to police. To be compensated, you will likely have to pay for damages and then submit a claim for reimbursement.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) also provides some protection for domestic violence survivors who live in public housing. VAWA protects domestic violence survivors from being evicted, or being denied housing, because of their status as survivors. While it doesn’t address the issue of damages directly, advocates have been able to point to VAWA to support their arguments that survivors shouldn’t be responsible for damages.
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Some housing providers have policies in place for crime victims. Make sure to ask if yours does—your landlord should be treating crimes related to domestic violence the same way he or she treats any other crime.
Build In Protection
If your abuser has yet to vacate, and you’re ready to start in the direction of separating, consider getting a protection order. If you anticipate possible future damages and you file for a protection order, you can ask the judge to include something in the order that requires the abuser to pay for any damages he or she causes. Contact a domestic violence advocate near you who can help you with this, along with creating a safety plan, when you’re ready to file.
“We have advocates being a little more aggressive in covering damages in orders of protection, and it varies depending on the advocate and the hearing officer,” says Dorinda L. Wider, an attorney with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. “A lot is about educating judges. They have pretty broad powers.”
Wider says that sometimes survivors who don’t pay for damages within 30 days face eviction, so it’s important to act quickly.
“In housing court, regarding evictions, most of the time we’ve had clients whose landlords say, ‘I’d really like to keep you, and I know the abuser doesn’t live with you, but we really need to have this damage paid for,’” she says.
Legal aid lawyers can help landlords understand that domestic violence should be treated like any other crime. “We can say, ‘If this were a break-in, are you billing the victims of burglaries?’ That’s been an ‘aha moment,’” Wider says. “You can’t have a separate standard for domestic violence. Making landlords think that this is a crime, not anything other than a crime, and that you have to treat it like a crime, has the most power.”
Educating landlords about domestic violence can also help survivors keep their housing. Sometimes, landlords aren’t that concerned about financial liability for damages. They are more afraid that the abuser will harm them, their staff or other tenants. When they understand that abusers typically focus on just one person—the survivor—they can be more likely to work with the survivor to keep their housing.
Security Deposit Refunds
In some cases, survivors move out and then discover that their landlord has kept the security deposit to cover the damages. “The tenant says, ‘Wait a minute. I didn’t break the door. I should get the $500 back,’” Wider says. In these situations, some survivors take their cases to court. While some cases resolve in favor of survivors, it’s hard to know how these cases typically turn out.
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Wider says that part of the struggle in these disputes over damages is that when they do get resolved no one other than the people involved knows the outcome. Even cases that go to court are typically resolved at low levels.
“They don’t result in reported cases, so there’s no body of law developed,” Wider says. “Decisions are being made all the time that touch on this issue, but they’re not being reported.” Domestic violence and legal aid advocates then can’t point to them as precedents.
And in other cases, survivors simply don’t have the energy to fight these battles. “They have a hundred other things that are a greater priority,” Wider says. Or, they pay to avoid being reported to tenant screening companies, which might lead to a bad reference when they look for another apartment.
If you do decide it’s in your best interest to simply pay for the damages, make sure you’re being charged a fair price. Wider has seen clients billed $1,700 to replace two thin, hollow doors. With a quick Internet search of home improvement sites, or a call to a local contractor, you can find out what a fair price might be to cover the damages.
Also, if you disagree with your landlord about your responsibility for damages, turn to an advocate for help before you pay. It’s easier to work out an agreement with your landlord before you’ve paid than afterwards.
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