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Supreme Court Decision Could Be Crucial to Protecting Domestic Violence Survivors

Michaela Wallin,
Women's Rights Project,
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January 16, 2015

In 1999, Tiffani Alvera was violently assaulted by her husband in their Oregon home and had to be hospitalized. After she provided a copy of the restraining order she obtained to her property manager, her landlord ordered her to vacate the apartment within 24 hours. The eviction notice held her responsible for the violence committed against her, stating: "You, someone in your control, or your pet, has seriously threatened to immediately inflict personal injury, or has inflicted personal injury upon the landlord or other tenants." Her landlord refused to remove only her husband from the lease and instead sought to evict the entire household. Ms. Alvera filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Ms. Alvera's complaint led to the federal government's first formal finding that the Fair Housing Act protects domestic violence victims from housing discrimination, including evictions based on the abuse committed against them. HUD concluded that penalizing victims for incidents of domestic violence in their homes can amount to sex discrimination because the vast majority of victims of domestic violence are women. Ultimately, Ms. Alvera was able to use the law to reform the management company's policies on evicting tenants based on domestic violence.

This concept – that evicting victims of domestic violence because of the abuse they face is not only wrong but illegal – should not be controversial. The courts and the federal government agree, having repeatedly found that the Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination against survivors of domestic violence because of its "disparate impact" on women.

But now, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to decide a case that will determine the future of this key legal protection. Next week, the court will consider whether the Fair Housing Act prohibits policies that have a discriminatory effect, regardless of whether they were adopted with the intent to discriminate, in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. the Inclusive Communities Project, Inc.

Without the ability to bring disparate impact claims, many domestic violence survivors will have no recourse when they face the same double victimization as Ms. Alvera: first abuse, then an eviction notice blaming them for the violence in their homes. Even more disturbingly, landlords usually only become aware of the violence after survivors call for help, and so survivors are forced to choose between seeking safety and keeping their homes.

For example:

  • Quinn Bouley was evicted after her husband physically attacked her in their Vermont home. Ms. Bouley subsequently gave her landlord a copy of the restraining order that identified her husband as the perpetrator and barred him from the home. Nevertheless, days later, the landlord gave the victim, Ms. Bouley, a notice to vacate, stating that the domestic violence violated a provision in the lease forbidding tenants from using or allowing the premises to be used for unlawful purposes.
  • Tanica Lewis and her two daughters were the victims of a home invasion when her abusive ex-partner, who had never lived at the residence in Detroit, broke the windows, kicked in her door, and was arrested while she was at work. Ms. Lewis had previously informed her landlord that, pursuant to a protection order, her ex-partner was not to be allowed on the property. Yet, after the break-in, she received a notice of eviction, stating that she had violated her lease by failing to properly supervise her guests.
  • Kathy Cleaves-Milan called the police to remove her fiancé, who was threatening to shoot her and himself with a gun, from her home in the Chicago suburbs. Later, although she explained that she was the victim and gave her protective order to the landlord, she was told that "anytime there is a crime in an apartment the household must be evicted." Ms. Cleaves-Milan was subsequently forced to move and charged with a hefty lease termination fee.

All of these women successfully used the Fair Housing Act to fight the discrimination they experienced. This recurring pattern demonstrates how crucial disparate impact is to ensuring equal housing opportunities for women.

Most of the time, landlords that hold victims of abuse responsible for violence perpetrated against them do not say they are making their decisions because they intend to discriminate against women. Yet, as we described in our amicus brief, it is clear that the majority of domestic violence victims are women, and that time and again, the homes and security of female victims of domestic violence are jeopardized because ostensibly neutral housing policies that evict entire households following criminal activity are enforced against them.

The court should preserve this important and long-standing tool to advance fair housing. It empowers survivors to both reach out for safety and support and maintain their homes for themselves and their children.

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