Analysis Law and Policy

Pennsylvania Considers Bill That Would Help Protect Domestic Violence Survivors From Eviction (UPDATED)

Annamarya Scaccia

On Monday, the Pennsylvania General Assembly considered for a second time HB 1796, the first statewide bill in the nation seeking to protect all victims of crime or abuse from experiencing similar maltreatment.

Update, January 14, 3:10 p.m. ET: HB 1796 passed the Pennsylvania house Tuesday. It will now be considered in the state senate.

When the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed its federal lawsuit in April 2013 on behalf of Lakisha Briggs, a domestic violence survivor evicted from her Pennsylvania home due to a local nuisance ordinance, it brought to light an issue harming many survivors of intimate partner violence: that these property ordinances, meant to cull blight and disruptive behaviors in communities, often displace innocent victims of crime.

On Monday, the Pennsylvania General Assembly considered for a second time HB 1796, the first statewide bill in the nation seeking to protect all victims of crime or abuse from experiencing similar maltreatment. Introduced in October, the bill would prohibit Commonwealth municipalities from penalizing a resident, tenant, or landlord for requesting police or emergency assistance if such contact was made “upon the reasonable belief” that assistance was needed to prevent “the perpetration or escalation of … the abuse, crime or emergency … or if the intervention or emergency assistance was actually needed in response to the abuse, crime or emergency.”

In other words, under HB 1796, districts could not use police calls made to a property due to domestic violence incidents as a reason to evict or threaten eviction, revoke or threaten to revoke a rental license, or impose fines in pursuant to a nuisance property ordinance. And if a municipality does unlawfully enforce the ordinance, the victim has the right to recoup fees and damages in civil court if they’re “displaced by virtue of the fact that they’re a victim,” state Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery County), the lawmaker and former prosecutor behind the bill, told Rewire.

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“[HB 1796] is not window dressing. This is the real deal. Any victim who a municipality tries to have evicted will have plenty of rights,” Rep. Stephens said.

Stephens announced his intentions to introduce HB 1796 in April after the ACLU lawsuit against Norristown’s discretionary Rental License Ordinance went public. “The goal is for this law is to have some teeth,” he said.

While HB 1796 would protect all victims of crime and abuse, it would have a profound impact on domestic violence survivors, like Briggs, who are disproportionately affected by property nuisance or disorderly conduct ordinances. As Rewire originally reported in June, Briggs, a resident of Norristown and mother of two, was evicted from her home in 2012, to the hesitation of her landlord, under Montgomery County borough’s original ordinance, which stated if police are called to a property three times in four months, Norristown had the right to revoke a landlord’s rental permit and provoke a tenant’s eviction. Norristown’s ordinance is just one of 19 known nuisance property ordinances in Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV), and of 59 other known ordinances throughout the country.

The last call to law enforcement, which prompted Briggs’ eviction, occurred on June 23, 2012, when a brutal attack on Briggs’ life was made by her ex-boyfriend, who abused her on reported occasions.

In late 2012, the ACLU was able to successfully halt Briggs’ eviction and persuade Norristown to annul its discretionary ordinance. But, that very same day, the borough passed a similar ordinance that instead imposed escalating mandatory fines on landlords for police calls responding to “disorderly behavior” at their properties.

That’s where the ACLU’s federal lawsuit comes in. Currently in the discovery phase, ACLU’s lawsuit contends that, much like the old one, the newest version of Norristown’s ordinance violates, among other laws, a tenant’s First Amendment right to petition the government, which the Supreme Court has decided includes calling the police. (A court-ordered settlement conference is scheduled for February 10, according to ACLU Staff Attorney Sara Rose, who is working on the Briggs case.) By imposing fines on the landlord until the landlord removes the cause of the “disorderly behavior,” Norristown is preventing domestic violence victims from calling police for help for fear that they will be evicted and subsequently become homeless.

As Rewire initially cited in June, a 2012 study analyzing a nuisance ordinance in Milwaukee found that 39 of 71 evictions or threats of evictions involved incidents of domestic violence toward women, many of whom weren’t living with their abuser. This statistic is compounded by the fact that domestic violence is cited as the primary reason for homelessness for 20 percent of homeless women, with reports showing women of color like Briggs—who make up a higher percentage of domestic violence victims—face higher eviction rates, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness.

“It’s an issue that’s really coming to the forefront of public awareness and understanding,” Laurie Baughman, senior attorney at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told Rewire.

The statewide coalition, which has worked to tackle these ordinances since 2006 by developing toolkits for attorneys and advocacy groups, worked with Rep. Stephens and the ACLU-PA and other municipal associations to craft HB 1796’s original and amended language. Baughman said PCADV is happy the bill “is in the works because it’s raising the bar and highlight this horrible issue.”

She continued: “[Pennsylvania] is a model in a bad way because of Norristown and is now hopefully going to be a model of how the state came together with Representative Stephens’ leadership, recognized an ill, and took action to fix it.”

The ACLU lawsuit also exposed how nuisance property ordinances can violate the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) if they result in an eviction of a survivor in public housing or using a Housing Choice voucher (Section 8), to offset rental costs, like Briggs. VAWA provides strong protections for domestic violence survivors, prohibiting the denial or termination of public housing or assistance on the basis of their status as a “victim of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault or stalking”—nor can criminal activity directly stemming from such violence be used to deny or terminate housing or benefits for a tenant that’s victimized. (In July, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania wrote a letter to the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development requesting the agencies educate local communities on VAWA’s protections for tenants in relation to property ordinances.)

Rep. Stephens told Rewire that HB 1796 “provides protections for everyone regardless if they are living in subsidized housing or not. For those who are living in subsidized housing, it provides another layer of rights and protections to ensure they are not wrongfully displaced.”

Currently, HB 1796 has 29 bipartisan co-sponsors from “rural, suburban and urban districts across the Commonwealth,” Stephens said. He hopes that if his bill passes third consideration, which is possible this week, it will be on its way to the Pennsylvania Senate at the end of next week.

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.”

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Supreme Court Hears Contraception Fight, Again

Imani Gandy & Jessica Mason Pieklo

Conservatives on the Supreme Court don't appear to understand insurance, contraception, or women's agency generally.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

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After facing a federal lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, the city of Surprise, Arizona, has agreed to repeal a “nuisance law” that pressured landlords to evict tenants for two crimes occurring at their property at any time or for placing more than four calls to police in 30 days—even if the tenant is the victim of the crime, as in domestic violence situations.

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