What you should know about domestic violence laws

Jason Van Steenwyk
Jason Van Steenwyk | 6 min. read

Published on April 28, 2016

In 2012, an overwhelmed landlord told one of their Pennsylvania renters that if she called the police again about her ex-boyfriend, she would be evicted.

Not long after, when her ex-boyfriend showed up, she was too afraid to call the police, and an argument escalated to violence. A neighbor had to call the police when the ex-boyfriend pulled out a knife. And then, rightly, the ACLU got involved. Because of incidents like this, laws related to repeated calls to law enforcement because of domestic disputes or violence are changing to protect abused residents.

While you can’t always predict or prevent these types of situations, there are things you can do to keep your community members safe.

First, and most importantly: if someone is actively violent on the property, you have the right to call the police immediately.

If the immediate crisis has passed, but you suspect ongoing problems, you can provide the number of The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233. Staff is trained to help victims secure emergency shelter, counseling and other forms of assistance.

Remember, too, that most states have specific provisions in their landlord-tenant laws to account for situations that may arise as a result of domestic abuse.

For example, under the Washington Landlord-Tenant Act, victims of stalking, domestic abuse, harassment or sexual assault can break a lease if they provide the landlord or property manager either protective order or a letter from a “qualified third party.” For the purposes of the Landlord-Tenant Act, a qualified third party can mean a law enforcement officer, court employee, physician, nurse or other health care provider, counselor, clergy member, or crime victim advocate.

The tenant must provide written notice of the intent to move out within 90 days of the incident that prompted the tenant to seek help—not the date of a restraining order or the date of the letter. Rent for the month they move out must still be paid.

The security deposit cannot be used by the landlord or property manager to cover rent agreements beyond the month during which the tenant moved out.

More information specific to Washington, including sample reports and letters, is available here.

To learn more about the specifics in your state, visit Nolo for a list of tenant protections.

One frequently asked question is: “Can I evict a tenant who calls the police every weekend because of domestic abuse?”

It depends on the circumstances or your jurisdiction.

California law, for example, prohibits landlords and property managers from evicting a victim simply because of domestic abuse issues, unless BOTH of the following circumstances apply:

  1. The victim continues to allow the aggressor, perpetrator or instigator to visit the property, or;
  2. The landlord or landlord’s representative believes that the presence of the person against whom the protection order has been issued or who was named in the police report of the act or acts of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, human trafficking, or abuse of an elder or dependent adult poses a physical threat to other tenants, guests, invitees, or licensees, or to a tenant’s right to quiet possession pursuant to Section 1927 of the California Civil Code.

 you’ve already provided a written three-day notice to correct the above.

California law also provides some liability protection to a landlord. You cannot be sued for damages by another resident because compliance with this law prohibited you from evicting someone you might otherwise evict.

Can I Evict the Abuser?

Yes. It’s not always easy to reliably identify the abuser from the outside. But you can evict an abuser and let the victim and other household members stay through a process called bifurcation, which is outlined in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013.

Confidentiality Obligations

If a tenant confides a domestic abuse, sexual assault or harassment issue to you or one of your employees, many jurisdictions prohibit landlords from disclosing the issue to anybody unless the victim consents in writing. Or, unless a court order requires the landlord to disclose the information.

In general, don’t release any information to staff, neighbors, or other tenants, without checking with your attorney about the laws in your jurisdiction. Breaking confidentiality is an invasion of privacy and could result in a HIPAA violation.

Section 8 Provisions

While landlord-tenant law is normally a state function, any incidents that occur in Section 8 housing also fall under federal law.

Specifically, the Violence Against Women and Children Act of 2005: If a Section 8 tenant moves because of a “reasonable belief” that staying would endanger the tenant or a child, or to protect a child, they can move without endangering access to future Section 8 benefits, as long as they are otherwise in compliance.

Normally they can continue to receive Section 8 benefits if they terminate their lease according to the terms of the lease and notify their public housing authority in advance. But the Violence Against Women and Children Act carves out an exception for victims forced to move to avoid exposing themselves or loved ones to further violence.

Furthermore, the Violence Against Women Act also prohibits public housing managers from discriminating against anyone on the basis of having been a victim of domestic violence in the past. The same goes for any landlords participating in Section 8: access to housing cannot be restricted because of a history of domestic violence victimhood.

Can I Evict for Non-Payment of Rent?

Normally, even victims of domestic violence must pay rent. You can generally evict for non-payment of rent, though of course you should use your own best judgment. Every situation is different, and nobody wants to permanently lose a good tenant to a temporary situation, especially if the abuser is no longer in the picture.

That said, there are some things you can do short of eviction for non-payment. For example, you can refer your tenant to a number of charity organizations that provide emergency assistance to abuse victims or others facing eviction or foreclosure. The Salvation Army runs one such program, and Catholic Charities has another program (your tenant doesn’t have to be Catholic to qualify for help).

These programs may help a victim get back on her feet and back to paying rent on schedule, or buy her some time to find other housing while you get paid your rent in the short-term.

While we hope that this is never an issue you or your tenants have to deal with, we hope these resources help you both navigate through these tough situations.

Read more on Legal Considerations
Jason Van Steenwyk

Jason is a freelance writer and editor, as well as an avid fiddler. His articles have been published in a number of real estate publications including Wealth and Retirement Planner and Bankrate.com. He lives in Fort Lauderdale, FL with his cat, Sasha, and an unknown number of musical instruments.

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