Analysis Human Rights

No Safe Haven: Shrinking Pool of Affordable Housing Creates Additional Hardship for Survivors of Domestic Abuse

Sheila Bapat

Dwindling options for affordable housing create ongoing challenges for survivors of domestic violence.

This is the first of our two-part series covering Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

For survivors of domestic violence (DV), the need for affordable housing is dire. According to the 2011 Domestic Violence Counts National Census, lack of housing comprised 64 percent of reported unmet needs for DV survivors. DV has long been cited as a cause of homelessness. And in order to avoid homelessness, many DV survivors choose to stay with abusers because they cannot afford to live on their own.

Against this backdrop, it is especially troubling that affordable housing options in the United States are dwindling overall. Last month, the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness (ICPH) issued a policy brief about the shrinking pool of affordable rental housing options throughout the United States. Since the economy took a hit in 2008, rising rent costs and inadequate levels of subsidized housing have made it harder for many Americans to afford a place to live, ICPH found. These conclusions have been corroborated by other organizations including the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). In its February 2012 Housing Spotlight, the NLIHC pointed out that low income renters have been competing for a smaller and smaller pool of affordable housing. (Low income is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s median family income categories.)

These recent trends about the dearth of affordable housing in the United States could exacerbate the difficulties experienced by DV survivors in finding safe places to live.

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“A key reason why many survivors stay in abusive relationships is the lack of affordable alternative housing options,” said Meliah Schultzman, staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project (NHLP). “In many jurisdictions, the waiting lists for affordable housing are quite long, which is not practical for survivors who need to relocate immediately.”

Short-term shelters are often the first place DV survivors turn, but resources are tight among shelters as well. Since 2010, 83 percent of housing and supportive services providers have reported increased demand for services for DV survivors, but funding for these services hasn’t kept pace with the demand. Case in point: Harmony House in Springfield, Missouri has been providing temporary shelter for domestic violence (DV) survivors and their children since the mid seventies. In the last year, the shelter has served 550 families, primarily women and children, but has had to turn away over 700 families due to lack of space. As Harmony House’s Executive Director, Rodney Dwyer, told a local Missouri newspaper last week, “While there always have been some people being turned away, this is a record high number for us, and that’s part of a statewide problem as well.”

Shelters like Harmony House often provide legal aid, job training, child care, and support groups in addition to housing—but even when they do have space, their services are temporary. When a DV survivor has exhausted her stay with a shelter and paying rent is out of reach, her options are often limited to either going back to an abuser, or homelessness. As NLIHC wrote, “The obvious outcome of this mismatch between [housing] supply and demand is that some people do not have homes at all—they become homeless. The existence of the gap is not a matter of debate.”

Well before the current drop in availability of affordable housing, the relationship between domestic violence and homelessness was clear. Cities have consistently cited domestic violence as a major cause of homelessness over the past several years. Among 29 cities included in the 2011 National Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness Survey, 13 percent of homeless people were domestic violence survivors. This is a decrease from the 39 percent of DV survivors reported in 2007, but as the Hunger and Homelessness Surveys indicate, this drop is at least in part because more people are experiencing homelessness due to increases in unemployment, not necessarily because DV rates have dropped in significant numbers. Homeless women surveyed throughout the country have consistently named domestic violence as the reason they ultimately fled their homes.  

If they are lucky enough to have a  place to live, DV survivors may still face eviction or other penalties for the abuse committed against them. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has protections in place for DV survivors living in public housing, and according to the NHLP, legislators throughout the country have begun working to put more protections in place to shield DV survivors from evictions and other penalties resulting from the violence they suffer.

But such protections can only aid DV survivors who have a place to live to begin with. To address the current gap in affordable housing, there needs to be a national increase in the availability of both short-term shelters as well as long-term housing options.

Domestic violence is not just a problem of the poor. It cuts across economic classes, but the survivors who are economically dependent on their abusers tend to face the greatest challenges in escaping abuse and building safe, healthy lives of their own. It is this subset of survivors for whom sustainable, affordable housing options are most critical.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

News Law and Policy

Advocates: Domestic Violence Survivors Face Housing Instability Under Arizona Housing Ordinance

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A lawsuit filed in federal court targets an ordinance that advocates claim leaves survivors of intimate partner violence forced to chose between calling the police for help or facing eviction.

A domestic violence survivor and single mother of two filed a federal lawsuit last week against the City of Surprise, Arizona, challenging a law that advocates claim pressures landlords to evict tenants who place more than four calls to police in 30 days, or for crimes occurring at the property, even when the tenant is the victim.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Arizona, and private firm Aiken Schenk Hawkins & Ricciardi P.C. filed the lawsuit on behalf of Nancy Markham, in which they argue enforcement of the nuisance ordinance violates Ms. Markham’s First Amendment right to seek police assistance. The lawsuit alleges the ordinance disregards the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition on gender discrimination, among other claims.

“Police protection is one of the most basic services the government provides,” Sandra Park, senior staff attorney in the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, said in a statement following the lawsuit. “For domestic violence survivors, it may be their only means to safety. The nuisance law ignores the needs of victims, empowers abusers to act without fear of police intervention, and increases victims’ vulnerability to both homelessness and future violence by pressuring landlords to remove them from housing.”

Nuisance ordinances like the one at issue in Surprise, Arizona, identify a property as a public nuisance when it is the site of a certain number of calls for police or alleged nuisance conduct.

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The ordinances are sometimes called disorderly house ordinances or crime-free ordinances and are designed in part to address assault, harassment, stalking, disorderly conduct, and other types of behavior. But advocates note these laws usually apply whether a resident was a victim or a perpetrator of the nuisance activity, which means domestic violence victims can face eviction for trying to protect themselves at home.

Laws like the one at issue in Markham’s lawsuit usually require property owners to “abate the nuisance” or face steep penalties. Many landlords respond to a nuisance citation by evicting the tenant, refusing to renew their lease, or instructing tenants not to call 9-1-1, according to advocates. That is what Markham has alleged happened to her.

Between March and September 2014, Markham’s ex-boyfriend choked her, punched her, and threatened her with weapons, as alleged in the complaint. Instead of helping protect Markham’s safety, the complaint says, a Surprise police officer instead enforced the nuisance ordinance by notifying her landlord about the police calls and encouraging Markham’s eviction.

In September 2014, the property manager of Markham’s apartment notified her that she would be evicted for having violated the law, even though the police never mentioned the law to Markham during any of her calls.

“Rather than protect public safety, these laws put domestic violence survivors in danger,” Nancy Markham said in a statement following the lawsuit. “When you are dealing with constant abuse as I was, you may need police protection on multiple occasions. The Surprise ordinance punished me for seeking much-needed emergency assistance.”

When the law passed in June 2010, the William E. Morris Institute for Justice and others warned the Surprise City Council that the policy would increase the vulnerability of domestic violence survivors. City council members passed the law anyway.

Proponents of nuisance ordinances argue they are necessary to deter crime, but advocates say that in practice, the ordinances undermine public safety and punish vulnerable people. Advocates note that survivors of domestic violence often feel they must endure violence and threats without police intervention because calling law enforcement could lead to homelessness.

Nuisance ordinances have also been found to disproportionately affect and be disparately enforced against communities of color and people with mental disabilities. Advocates charge that because these ordinances typically do not require that residents be told about a warning or citation, affected people often have no opportunity to show that they were actually victims of the “nuisance conduct” and may not know that a nuisance ordinance is at the root of their housing instability.

Arizona is not alone in enacting these kinds of domestic nuisance ordinances.

The ACLU last year successfully challenged a similar ordinance in Pennsylvania, and a report issued in 2013 by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago noted at least 100 municipalities in Illinois had similar laws on the books. Advocates say these policies can reduce the availability of desperately needed affordable rental housing.

“Laws like the Surprise nuisance ordinance unfairly impact victims of domestic violence and force them to choose between stable housing and protecting themselves and their families from their abusers,” cooperating attorney Heather A. Macre of Aiken Schenk Hawkins & Ricciardi P.C. said in a statement. “This is a choice no one should have to make.”

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