Brown Pushes HUD to End Housing Practice that Endangers Domestic Violence Survivors

Lawmakers Press Top Federal Housing Official to Ensure Survivors Aren’t Forced to Choose Between Personal Safety and a Place to Live

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), the top Democrat on the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, urged the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for action to combat unfair and discriminatory nuisance ordinances that disproportionately affect survivors of domestic violence.

Local nuisance ordinances are generally aimed at combating crime and ensuring public safety, but they can also unintentionally punish victims for calls to the police or emergency assistance for crimes occurring at their homes. In many cases, landlords are forced to either evict tenants who made the call for help or face hefty fines, loss of rental permits, or property foreclosure. And as a result, victims of crime—including survivors of domestic violence—are forced to face the impossible decision between being safe and being homeless.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has recognized that survivors of domestic violence face unique challenges in securing and maintaining adequate housing. Today, Brown, along with U.S. Sens. Al Franken (D-MN), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and over 20 of their colleagues, urged HUD to address ongoing barriers to safe housing for victims and their children.

“No one should be forced to choose between safety from an abuser and shelter for themselves and their families.” wrote the Senators to the head of HUD. “Unfortunately, all too often, women across the nation are forced to make that decision. As such, we urge you to do everything in your power to prevent further evictions of domestic violence victims and to ensure all Americans have critical access to emergency services without fear of retaliation.”

The letter was also signed by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Tom Udall (D-N. Mex.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

The ACLU is fighting to stop the enforcement of local laws that penalize crime victims, survivors of domestic violence, and people of color by evicting them simply because a crime occurred in their home or because they called 911,” said Vania Leveille, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU.  “These ordinances often violate protections found in fair housing laws and laws prohibiting discrimination against domestic violence victims and people with disabilities. Guidance from HUD will go a long way to ensure that no one has to choose between being safe or being homeless. We commend Senators Franken, Brown, and Warren for their leadership on this important issue and thank all of the senators who added their voices in support.”

You can view a copy of today’s full letter by clicking here or below.

August 17, 2016 

The Honorable Julian Castro
Secretary
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
820 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002

Dear Secretary Castro:

We write to express our support for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) efforts to combat unfair and discriminatory nuisance ordinances that disproportionately affect survivors of domestic violence. In recent years, we have seen a troubling rise in local nuisance laws that impede access to housing and place vulnerable individuals in danger. No one should be forced to choose between safety from an abuser and shelter for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, all too often, women across the nation are forced to make that decision. As such, we urge you to do everything in your power to prevent further evictions of domestic violence victims and to ensure all Americans have critical access to emergency services without fear of retaliation. Specifically, we ask that HUD provide written guidance on how nuisance ordinances may raise fair housing issues and harm vulnerable populations. Such guidance will help ensure that communities do not force crime victims and those in need of emergency services to choose between safety and eviction.

Although local nuisance ordinances purport to decrease crime rates and increase public safety, they often do the opposite by creating an untenable situation for victims of crime. Like the laws at issue in HUD’s recent complaints against Norristown, Pennsylvania, and Berlin, New Hampshire, nuisance ordinances established by local governments across the nation are penalizing victims for calls requesting police protection or emergency assistance for crimes occurring at their homes. In most cases, landlords are forced to evict tenants who made the call for help or face significant fines, loss of rental permits, or property foreclosure. As an unintended consequence, individuals, particularly those who are victims of crime, are being removed from their homes when they are at their most vulnerable. Those victims who choose not to report the criminal activity to the police – for fear of eviction – are prevented from accessing emergency assistance and placed in heightened danger.

Moreover, nuisance ordinances have a disproportionate impact on victims of domestic violence by exacerbating housing insecurities that may be unique to survivors and further increasing victims’ likelihood of becoming homeless. As HUD has frequently recognized, survivors of domestic violence face unique challenges in securing and maintaining adequate housing. Indeed, according to the Department of Justice, one-in-four homeless women in the United States is a survivor of domestic violence. And not surprisingly, once a woman becomes homeless, she becomes more vulnerable to violence and exploitation. In fact, nine-in-ten homeless women have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse. Nuisance ordinances exacerbate the link between homelessness and domestic violence by designating calls for police assistance or criminal activity as nuisances, even where the tenant is the victim. Research has found that calls regarding domestic violence generally make up the largest category of emergency assistance calls. Thus, nuisance violations are frequently triggered by domestic violence incidents.

Because women make up approximately 85 percent of domestic violence victims and are far more likely to be affected by nuisance ordinances, we believe nuisance laws may violate fair housing protections found in the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The FHA prohibits housing discrimination based on sex, and it applies to policies that are intentionally discriminatory or those that have a disparate impact on a protected class, including women. HUD has also stated that discrimination against survivors of domestic violence can be considered sex discrimination.Accordingly, regardless of whether a locality intended to discriminate against victims of domestic violence, nuisance ordinances run contrary to the FHA if they have a disproportionate impact on women.

VAWA further prohibits certain housing providers, including local governments and landlords who receive federal funding, from denying “assistance, tenancy, or occupancy” to any person because of domestic violence-related criminal activity committed by a household member, guest, or “other person in control” of the tenant if the tenant or an “affiliated individual” is the victim. As such, nuisance ordinances violate VAWA when they require or encourage housing providers to evict or deny housing to survivors of domestic violence.

When victims of domestic violence cannot request police protection for fear of potential eviction, abusers commit their attacks under the cover of law. These ordinances, rather than ensuring public safety, exacerbate domestic violence and heighten the risk of assault and homelessness among domestic violence survivors. In addition, people with disabilities and people of color have been adversely impacted by these laws, raising independent and intersecting fair housing concerns.

Given that nuisance ordinances are increasingly prevalent and may be violating federal law on a wide-ranging scale, we urge HUD to do everything in its power to prevent such ordinances from harming individuals and to ensure that all tenants have access to secure housing as well as necessary emergency assistance. Specifically, we request that HUD provide written guidance on how nuisance ordinances may raise fair housing issues and violate the FHA and VAWA and incorporate assessment of these laws into its efforts affirmatively furthering fair housing work with HUD grantees. Grantees, including municipalities, should be evaluating the fair housing impact of these laws both before and after enactment. We also strongly encourage HUD to continue its work with the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity to ensure every FHA complaint is evaluated in accordance with the guidance requested.

While the link between homelessness and domestic violence is undeniable, it is not unbreakable. Thank you for considering our request, and we look forward to working with you to address the housing needs of domestic violence survivors and other vulnerable populations.

Sincerely,

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