Achieving Fair Housing for Survivors through Domestic Violence Housing Policies: Lewis v. North End Village

By Sandra S. Park, ACLU Women’s Rights Project, Staff Attorney

In 2006, Tanica Lewis obtained a personal protection order against Reuben Thomas, her ex-boyfriend and the father of her two young daughters, after he threatened and stalked her.  The order required Thomas to stay away from her apartment in XML:NAMESPACE PREFIX = ST1 />Detroit, MI.  A few weeks later, however, Thomas came to her home while Ms. Lewis was at work, smashed the window, and kicked in the door.  Ms. Lewis reported the incident to the police as well as to the residential manager of the property, and Thomas ultimately was convicted of home invasion. Nevertheless, based on this incident, the property management company issued Ms. Lewis a 30-day notice of eviction, stating that under her lease she was responsible for any damage resulting from “lack of proper supervision” of her “guests.”  As a result of the eviction, Ms. Lewis and her two young daughters could not return home and lived in a shelter.  After some time, they found another apartment, but at a higher rent and further from her workplace.

The ACLU Women’s Rights Project and the ACLU of Michigan filed a case in federal court against the landlord North End Village, the management company Management Systems, and its residential manager on behalf of Ms. Lewis and her children alleging violation of the Fair Housing Act and Michigan civil rights laws, Lewis v. North End Village, et al..  In a ground-breaking settlement approved by the court in February 2008, the landlord and management company agreed to adopt a comprehensive policy on domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking, including anti-discrimination protections and the options of early lease termination and/or relocation.  Ms. Lewis also received a monetary sum and attorneys’ fees.

Do federal and state housing laws protect survivors of domestic violence?

The Fair Housing Act is a federal law that (among other things) prohibits landlords from discriminating on the basis of sex.  It applies to both private and government-subsidized housing. The ACLU and other advocates have argued that housing actions or policies that discriminate against domestic violence survivors can constitute illegal sex discrimination under the Fair Housing Act when they are based on gender stereotypes or have a disparate impact on women.  In Ms. Lewis’ situation, the landlord apparently assumed that a victim of domestic violence was responsible for the actions of her batterer and thus punished her for his crimes, despite the protective order she had against him. 

Another federal law, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), grants explicit protections to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking who live in public housing or Section 8-subsidized housing.  Public housing authorities and section 8 owners cannot deny admission to or (with very narrow exceptions) evict these victims because of the abuse they have suffered.  Under VAWA, public housing authorities and section 8 owners can also bifurcate leases in order to remove batterers from tenancy while allowing victims to remain, and public housing authorities can permit victims to move with their voucher prior to the end of a lease if they need to leave the apartment for safety reasons.  Because Ms. Lewis did not live in public or voucher housing, VAWA did not cover her eviction.  However, VAWA can be an important tool for many survivors of violence, whose rights under the law must be respected by public housing authorities and section 8 landlords.

Several states also have passed laws that apply to all forms of housing and, for example, prohibit discrimination against victims of domestic violence, allow victims to end their leases early when they must flee, and give victims a defense when they are being evicted based on the violence of their abusers.  Because the majority of states have not yet enacted such legislation, most survivors of violence primarily must rely on federal housing laws.  Adoption of domestic violence housing policies by landlords can supplement existing laws and provide further guidance and protection to housing applicants, tenants, and property employees.

What was achieved in the agreement settling Ms. Lewis’ federal case?

Under the settlement, the landlord and management company agreed to adopt a “Domestic Violence, Dating Violence, Sexual Assault, and Stalking Policy.”  The policy provides that they will not discriminate against or evict housing applicants or tenants because they have been the victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault or stalking, whether or not the abuser is residing in the tenant's household.  The property management company will also offer early lease termination and/or relocation to another unit operated by the company to tenants who have been the victims of such abuse and need to leave their homes to ensure their safety.  The management company will keep confidential information provided by victims, accept complaints regarding any violations of the new policy, and ensure its staff is aware of the policy.

Unlike VAWA, the policy implemented in the settlement will apply to victims of violence regardless of whether they receive a government subsidy and also provides for transfers to another unit when victims must flee their homes.  The settlement also protects victims of sexual assault, who are not specifically included in VAWA. 

While the settlement agreement will be most helpful to survivors of violence who apply for or live in housing operated by the management company and landlord sued in the case, it can also serve as a model for a domestic violence policy that all landlords, including private landlords, should adopt. 

Why should landlords adopt domestic violence housing policies?

Domestic violence housing policies are vital to prevent victims from remaining in abusive situations or returning to batterers because they lack housing options.  Studies from across the country confirm the connection between domestic violence and homelessness.  The 2005 Hunger and Homelessness Survey by the United States Conference of Mayors concluded that half of the surveyed U.S. cities reported that domestic violence is a primary cause of homelessness, and Congress found that 92% of homeless women had experienced severe physical or sexual abuse in their lifetimes.

The ACLU has received numerous reports of battered women across the country facing eviction based on the abuse they have suffered.  Many landlords and housing managers are unaware that such evictions may constitute discrimination under the Fair Housing Act, state civil rights laws, or VAWA.  In Ms. Lewis’ case, as in many others, the residential manager acted based on the language of the lease, ignoring the discriminatory effects of holding a domestic violence victim responsible for the crimes of her abuser.  Affirmative housing policies that protect victims of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, and sexual assault both shields landlords from potential liability and gives women the security of stable housing, free from violence. 

As Ms. Lewis said, “When I reported the domestic violence, first to the police and then to my housing manager, I thought I was making myself and my children safer.  Instead, my landlord threw us out of the apartment and we had nowhere to go.  I brought my case to court because I hope other women who are brave enough to come forward about their abusers don’t suffer the same way.”

Further information about the housing rights of survivors of domestic violence, as well as the settlement papers in Ms. Lewis’ case, are available at www.aclu.org/fairhousingforwomen.  Fact sheets and a know-your-rights brochure can be downloaded in English and Spanish.  Advocates may also contact the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, (212) 549-2644 or womensrights@aclu.org.

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