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.

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.”

Analysis Violence

New Bill Would Help Domestic Violence Survivors Find Shelter for Their Pets Too

Annamarya Scaccia

Less than 5 percent of domestic violence shelters nationwide house pets. But a real need exists for more: Survivors often delay leaving abusive situations because they fear their companion animal would be harmed or killed.

On a cold Thursday morning in February 2014, Jasmin Rivera barely had a moment’s peace before her partner barged into the bedroom of their apartment in Bronx, New York. The couple needed to talk, her partner demanded.

“I’m like, ‘Oh God, please,'” Rivera told Rewire during a visit to the Urban Resource Institute’s (URI) Safe Haven domestic violence shelter in New York City, where she’s lived since last April. “I was so tired. It was the end of the week.”

Her former partner had verbally, mentally, and emotionally abused Rivera, a cultural studies professor at Hostos Community College, since they started dating in the 1990s. But the abuse intensified during the last few months of their relationship, after Rivera’s partner began an affair with another woman. And that Thursday morning, what started as a verbal fight escalated to physical violence when Rivera refused to argue back. That assault, says Rivera, seemed to be the the worst of what she’d gone through so far. Although Rivera had left to stay with her mother many times prior, on that day, she says, she knew she needed to leave for good.

As she packed her things through the tears and shaken nerves, Rivera wondered about her two Shih Tzus, Tony and Teresa, for whom she had cared since they were six-month-old pups.

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“I looked down and I see them, and they’re shaking,” Rivera told Rewire. “At that moment, I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m putting my dogs through this.’”

Rivera had realized a week earlier, during a different argument, that her then partner could potentially harm her two dogs. Seeing them tremble in fear that day compelled her to leave more quickly, she says, and to take them with her to find safe housing.

A federal bill reintroduced in March by Reps. Katherine Clark (D-MA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) would help make more pet-friendly domestic violence shelters a possibility for people like Rivera, who fear that their dogs, cats, or other animals will be harmed by their abusive partners.

HR 1258, known as the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act, would create a grant program to help agencies working with survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking to develop housing programs that accommodate survivors and their pets.

As of now, there are scant resources around the country for individuals whose pets have made attempts to find alternate shelter more complicated. For example, Safe Haven, where Rivera lives, is New York City’s first and and only domestic violence shelter accommodating survivors with pets.

Last March, URI partnered with pet care company Purina to open a dog park: a gated playground discreetly located in an alleyway on Safe Haven’s premises to give survivors and their dogs a chance to exercise without exposing them to fear of violence. The dog park is an expansion of URI’s People and Animals Living Safely (PALS) program, which launched in June 2013 as a pilot initiative welcoming cats and small animals to Safe Haven, one of URI’s four shelters in the city. Based on animal and family advocate Allie Phillips’s Sheltering Animals & Families Together model, URIPALS expanded in January 2014 to provide housing to dogs, with a limit of three pets per family. There are now ten pet-friendly units in the 32-unit emergency shelter, where survivors stay for an average of six months—although some survivors, such as Rivera, have stayed longer.

“Doors were not open for [survivors with pets], so we wanted to be the first to open doors,” Jennifer White-Reid, URI’s vice president of domestic violence programs, told Rewire.

In this respect, Safe Haven is unique, and not just in New York City: Less than 5 percent of domestic violence shelters nationwide house pets, according to John Goodwin, director of Animal Cruelty Policy at the Humane Society of the United States. But a real need exists for more: Research by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) shows between 18 and 48 percent of survivors delay vacating abusive situations because they fear their pet would be in danger if left behind.

It’s a justified worry, as pets are often targets of abuse—the ASPCA also reported that, in one study, 71 percent of women in domestic violence shelters said their abuser had threatened, harmed, or killed their companion animal. And about one-fourth of survivors who leave abusive situations return to the relationship out of concern for their pet’s safety, said Goodwin.

“[Animal cruelty] is another way for an abuser to inflict harm, whether it’s physical harm or emotional harm,” Goodwin told Rewire.

Both White-Reid and Nat Fields, URI’s president and CEO, told Rewire stories of survivors who reported abusers threatening to slap pets or tie them up and put them in a microwave.

“Often, the perpetrator would attack the pet in an opportunity to have more control over [the survivor],” Fields told Rewire.

That’s what Rivera feared would happen to Tony and Teresa, as her partner became increasingly abusive with her “from week to week, from day to day,” as she put it. A week before she moved out, Rivera’s ex-partner had picked up 4-year-old Teresa and mocked Rivera, referring to her in Spanish as a “whore” to the tiny Shih Tzu.

In addition, the long exposure to violence had caused Tony and Teresa to become withdrawn and wayward. Teresa stopped eating and Tony would urinate all over her mother’s apartment, where Rivera stayed before a counselor at the Bronx County Family Court Help Center told her about URIPALS.

And Rivera herself was in terrible shape. After being brutally assaulted again by her partner the night of the fight—resulting in a broken ankle that would require her to wear a cast for four months—Rivera became depressed and despondent. She continued to work, but lived in fear that her ex-partner would stalk Rivera on campus or harass her in the street.

Rivera fell behind on grooming and bathing her dogs, she says, and wasn’t as playful with them. “I lost my routines with them,” Rivera told Rewire. “I was a mess. It was really bad.”

Rivera’s move into URIPALS has helped redevelop those routines. Teresa began eating again, gaining back the weight she had lost, and Tony, now 5 years old, calmed down, using the wee-wee pads indoors like Rivera had trained him. The three even developed a stronger emotional bond, Rivera said, because of the services and tranquility offered by the shelter. During Rewire’s visit with Rivera, the two dogs were active and energetic, but rarely left Rivera’s side—often guarding her at her feet.

“I didn’t know what to expect because I hadn’t been in a shelter before,” Rivera told Rewire. “The minute I got into the [Safe Haven] living room, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is a blessing.’”

At Safe Haven, URIPALS places survivors in fully furnished apartments that are equipped with crates, beds, blankets, and toys for animals. The agency also gives pets food, behavioral therapy, and veterinary care, including emergency services and routine checkups—some of which are funded and provided by the ASCPA, which has given URI $150,000 in grant money since 2014. If passed, the PAWS Act would give URI the financial resources to continue those services unabated at Safe Haven, as well as the capital necessary to expand URIPALS to its other shelter sites.

The grants, which would be funded through money already allotted in the federal budget, would also go toward training and support services at URIPALS and elsewhere. All this would increase the safe housing available to domestic violence survivors in New York City and around the country.

“PAWS will allow for resources to be allocated to providers to be able to develop the model” of accommodating survivors and their pets in shelters, whether it’s through co-sheltering or building a separate structure for pet living, Fields told Rewire. “Training? Real cost. Providing food? Real cost. Bringing in therapy? Real cost. And right now, [the] government doesn’t support that.”

“A lot of people minimize the importance of the relationship between animals and humans,” White-Reid told Rewire. “These kinds of programs are life-saving programs.”

Jasmin Rivera, Rivera, Jasmin,

Jasmin Rivera holds her 5-year-old Shih Tzu, Tony, while her 4-year-old Shih Tzu, Teresa, watches from behind her.

In addition to granting shelters more financial resources—the bill’s sponsors suggest $3 million in total funding—the PAWS Act would also allow for the Violence Against Women Act to be amended to include pet protective orders at the federal level. That means, said Goodwin, if a survivor has a restraining order that includes her pet, that protection will apply even if they move to a state that doesn’t recognize such orders, which prohibit abusers from being near pets even when a survivor isn’t around.

“And that’s very valuable,” because animals nationwide would be protected from potential abuse, Goodwin told Rewire.

Last year, Ohio became the latest state to enact legislation that allows for domestic violence protection orders to include pets. Twenty-seven others—including Rep. Clark’s home state of Massachusetts—have similar pet protective orders laws, as do Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

This groundswell of state-level laws is a relatively new development, says Dr. Randall Lockwood, senior vice president for Forensic Sciences and Anti-Cruelty Projects at the ASPCA. “It’s been less than a decade that we’ve seen [protection for pets] recognized in legislation,” he said. In fact, New York and Maine were among the first states to pass such bills in 2006. “It probably won’t be that much longer before we see the potential for that kind of action in every state.”

Lockwood said the rise in pet protective order legislation has been “a very positive change” since he published the book Cruelty to Animals and Interpersonal Violence in 1997—one of the earliest works on the link between domestic violence and animal cruelty.

The PAWS Act, a first-of-its-kind federal bill that died in committee when it was introduced in Congress last year, has more than 50 co-sponsors, and was referred to the House Subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture and Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations, respectively, late last month.

While there is no organized opposition against the act, Lockwood anticipates resistance toward the bill from members of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee. Some politicians, he said, still fear that any bill involving animal protection “is somehow antithetical to agriculture,” given the frequent legislative clashes between the two camps. In recent years, for example, more and more state lawmakers have introduced anti-whistleblower—or, as some advocates call them, “ag gag”—laws that would make it illegal to film or photograph factory farms in order to expose food safety and animal cruelty concerns. In 2013, the committee voted in favor of a House Farm Bill amendment that the ASPCA warned would weaken state animal cruelty laws by prohibiting states from passing their own laws governing “agricultural products”—which include livestock.

And in March of this year, Oregon Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that animals can be considered victims under a state statute used to convict a farmer found guilty in 2010 of second-degree animal neglect.

With this history in mind, extra effort may be needed to convince lawmakers the PAWS Act is not about animals’ rights in the traditional activism sense, but about “human and pet protection,” Lockwood said. This bill, Lockwood stressed, “has nothing to do with livestock, nothing to do with factory farming. This is about protecting people and animals from acts of violence.”

For Rivera, the benefits of the PAWS Act for survivors are unmistakable, based on both her own experiences and her loved ones’. Her sister, for example, delayed leaving her abusive ex-husband because she didn’t have access to a pet-friendly shelter for herself and her elderly dog, Gigi.

Rivera’s sister’s husband hospitalized Rivera’s sister the last time she tried to flee. Although her sister was discharged into a shelter, it would not accept her dog or her teenage son, who was considered too old to house.

Her son was able to stay with a friend; Gigi had to stay with the abusive ex, who threatened to kill the dog if Rivera’s sister left him, Rivera says.

“I remember feeling really bad that she couldn’t have her dog, because I understood what that’s like,” Rivera told Rewire. “You feel powerless.”

Rivera’s sister was able to reunite with her dog after finding an apartment a town over from where her abusive ex-husband lived. She then moved to New York City to stay with family at the same time Rivera moved into Safe Haven last year. Rivera said she’s “blessed” to have URIPALS, and only wishes her sister had had access to a similar support system.

That’s why it’s important the PAWS Act passes Congress, as it would give other survivors the lifeline they need to escape abuse, says Rivera, as well as drawing public attention to their situations.

“[The PAWS Act] raises awareness and it raises opportunities for people to get away from a vicious cycle,” Rivera told Rewire.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect the number of states that have enacted pet protection laws.