Analysis Law and Policy

How Housing Policies Continue to Fail Domestic Violence Survivors

Lisa Needham

Laws that count domestic violence as a reason to evict tenants or make it difficult to break leases take their toll on those experiencing abuse.

In the aftermath of domestic violence, survivors don’t just face the physical and emotional harms that stem directly from abusive relationships. They also face ancillary problems like the possibility of losing their jobs and housing discrimination.

If they live with their abuser, they may be forced to leave and live in a shelter. And if they live separately from their abuser, the private decisions of many landlords and the public decisions of some municipalities may make it difficult for them to remain in their home.

Nuisance ordinances in particular make it difficult for those attempting to leave an abusive situation. Designed to remove tenants who do things like engage in drug activities, they allow a landlord to evict a renter if there are a certain number of police calls to their residence within a given period, with the added effect of treating any activity—such as intimate partner violence or disorderly conduct—as a nuisance.

Although the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has successfully sued a number of municipalities over these laws on behalf of victims of domestic violence (see Norristown, Pennsylvania, and Surprise, Arizona), the ordinances have not disappeared. Earlier this month, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against a Maplewood, Missouri, policy. Unlike previous laws, the Maplewood policy identifies as a nuisance more than two incidents of domestic violence within 180 days that result in calls to the police, putting the tenant at risk of eviction. Moreover, the law can result in landlords barring such tenants from the city for six months, according to the claim. There is no exception for domestic violence survivors seeking protection from the police.

The ACLU’s fight against these ordinances is critical at a time when the Trump administration is poised to roll back basic housing rights. But while the ACLU makes advances municipality by municipality, government leaders and landlords need to implement broader solutions to help survivors stay safe in housing situations.

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In its work combatting these nuisance policies, the ACLU makes its case from a constitutional law perspective. Denying people a place to live based on the fact that they have called police is a First Amendment violation, which guarantees not just freedom of speech but also the right to petition the government. Communicating with law enforcement to report a crime is a form of petitioning the government. Put another way, the government in Maplewood, Missouri, penalizes domestic violence victims for a type of speech—the contacting of their police department.

Maplewood’s conduct also violates the right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment and under the Missouri State Constitution’s equivalent protections, the lawsuit notes. Domestic violence disproportionately claims women as victims, with one in five women versus one in seven men being severely physically abused by a partner. A law that singles out domestic violence as a nuisance crime will affect more women than men.

The ACLU also argues that removing a domestic violence victim from her home violates due process. The nuisance ordinance doesn’t provide for an impartial hearing about the removal when it is related to police calls, so a victim is functionally deprived of their property—their apartment—without any recourse. And, in the event a law ensnares domestic violence survivors who are also on public assistance, it likely violates the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). That law prohibits termination of assistance for criminal acts, such as domestic violence, when the woman receiving the assistance is the victim.

In the ACLU’s Maplewood case, the plaintiff’s rent was subsidized by a Section 8 voucher, according to the lawsuit. She lost her housing subsidy after the eviction in question and did not see her voucher reinstated for four years, when the housing authority received notification the termination violated VAWA. “Without the voucher, she was unable to secure a stable home for herself. She has moved approximately eight times after the Revocation Order and was homeless for periods of time,” the lawsuit states.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued guidance to clarify that nuisance laws violate the Federal Fair Housing Act when they have “a discriminatory effect on people of a protected class who live in private or public housing and use emergency services,” as Annamarya Scaccia reported in a September Rewire article. The guidance specifically referenced domestic violence survivors. However, with President Trump having installed Ben Carson as the head of HUD, there is no guarantee that the agency would continue to have such a protective view about the reach of the Fair Housing Act. Carson has already signaled his willingness to gut the Fair Housing Act in other contexts.

Should the ACLU succeed in its Maplewood case, it would be a huge step forward in terms of getting rid of nuisance laws that endanger survivors of domestic violence and disincentivize them from seeking help. However, it doesn’t solve some other big problems around rentals and intimate partner abuse. Sometimes the problem isn’t that a survivor needs to stay in their home—the problem is that they need to be able to get out.

When someone is being stalked or has been physically or sexually assaulted in their apartment, that location may be too unsafe or terrifying for a survivor to stay. Sometimes, people in such situations need to break their lease and find new housing. However, private landlords are generally not required to allow survivors to opt out of their lease.

The Colorado legislature is considering a law that would require landlords to allow victims to break their lease if they could provide one of three types of proof: (1) a police report or order for protection; (2) a doctor’s statement about the tenant’s status; or (3) a statement from Colorado’s address confidentiality program acknowledging that the tenant has applied. (The address confidentiality program is designed to help people who have experienced stalking or assault remove themselves from any state databases that make their address publicly accessible.)

Landlords are tentatively on board, but have said to legislators that the law would incentivize people to make false claims to get out of a lease. (This ignores the fact that naming oneself as a victim of stalking or assault is neither easy nor comfortable.)

Having each state adopt similar legislation while also barring nuisance ordinances would go a long way toward helping survivors stay safe in—or out of—their homes. This is a thorny problem and requires solutions at the local, state, and federal level and buy-in from private landlords, but it’s a problem that has to be solved.

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