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Federal Agency Issues Guidance Shielding Abuse Survivors From Eviction for Calling Police

Annamarya Scaccia

Through its guidance, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development clarifies that a city ordinance is in violation of the Fair Housing Act if it has a discriminatory effect on people of a protected class who live in private or public housing and use emergency services.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on Tuesday issued new guidance on how it will evaluate so-called nuisance ordinances and other housing policies—a move advocates say could protect domestic violence survivors from eviction.

Increasingly, cities are passing “crime-free statutes”—which can provoke a tenant’s eviction if police are called to the property three or more times in a short period—in order to supposedly curb disruptive behavior in their neighborhoods. But domestic violence survivors are often re-victimized under these ordinances, because, if they call for police help in abuse situations, a landlord could be forced to evict them or face a penalty from the city.

HUD issued the guidance, as it reads, “to explain how the Fair Housing Act applies to ensure that the growing number of local nuisance ordinances and crimefree housing ordinances do not lead to discrimination in violation of the Act.”

Through its guidance, the federal agency clarifies that a city ordinance is in violation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) if it has a discriminatory effect on people of a protected class who live in private or public housing and use emergency services. The guidance specifically discusses domestic violence survivors, but applies broadly to other groups, such as people of color and people living with disabilities. HUD also explains what steps the agency will take when investigating claims of discrimination due to the enforcement of a city ordinance.

“On the 22nd anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, HUD makes it clear that no one should have to choose between calling 9-1-1 and being evicted,” said HUD Secretary Julián Castro in a statement accompanying the new guidance.

This guidance comes three years after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued Norristown, Pennsylvania, challenging the constitutionality of its nuisance ordinance. The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Lakisha Briggs, a domestic violence survivor evicted from her home under the discretionary municipal code. As Rewire originally reported, the Norristown police chief at the time had considered police responses to domestic violence Briggs suffered to be disorderly conduct. The last call, which prompted her eviction, happened when her abuser stabbed her in the neck, causing Briggs to be airlifted to a Philadelphia hospital.

Research has found that nuisance ordinances have a disproportionate effect on survivors of domestic violence like Briggs. An oft-cited 2012 Milwaukee study found that nearly a third of evictions or threats of evictions were caused by domestic violence calls, the bulk of which involved women tenants who did not live with their abuser. This statistic suggests that women might be afraid to call for help if it means they could lose housing; domestic violence in and of itself is already a cause of homelessness for at least 22 percent of homeless women.

“Domestic violence victims shouldn’t face the impossible choice of staying silent or risking homelessness because they call 911,” Sandra Park, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, said in a statement. “HUD is sending a strong message that these local ordinances can be dangerous for vulnerable people who need help, and cities should repeal them.”

HUD initiated a separate investigation into Norristown two weeks after Rewire‘s initial reporting. The federal agency claimed that, by enacting and enforcing the code, the township was violating the FHA. (The act doesn’t prohibit local governments from enacting nuisance ordinances and other housing policies, but does apply if those codes were enforced in a discriminatory manner.) The lawsuit and probe led to a repeal of the ordinance in September 2014 and Briggs was awarded $495,000 in damages. That October, then-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) signed into law HB 1976, a bill that prohibits municipalities from penalizing renters or landlords who call the police for help.

“A home should be a sanctuary where everyone can live without the threat of violence or harassment,” said Castro in the announcement.

Advocates say cases like Briggs’ are pervasive across the country. Last year, for example, the ACLU and the ACLU of Arizona filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a single mother of two, claiming that instead of helping the domestic violence survivor, police in Surprise, Arizona, enforced the local nuisance code and triggered her eviction. The ACLU has also documented instances where people of color and people living with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by crime-free codes.

In December, the ACLU, along with housing, disability, and anti-violence advocates, called on HUD to issue a nuisance ordinance guidance. Last month, 29 U.S. senators, including former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders (I-VT), wrote a letter in support.

HUD also published its final rule on Tuesday defining legal standards for sexual and other types of harassment under the FHA. The guidance clarifies how the agency will determine harassment claims in private and public housing.

“The actions we take will work together to protect the housing rights of victims of harassment and survivors of domestic violence,” Castro said.

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