Unfortunately, federal laws might not sufficiently protect American Indian/Alaska Native victims of sexual and domestic violence’s housing rights. The Violence Against Women Act’s (VAWA) housing protection provisions apply to a very limited number of victims receiving federal housing assistance from specifically enumerated programs. The majority of American Indian/ Alaskan Native victims of sexual and domestic violence likely are not protected by VAWA. The Federal government, however, is not the only government entity that has prioritized the housing rights of victims. Several states have enacted laws, some of which provide much more rights than federal laws, to victims of domestic violence. These state laws are especially relevant for victims who are former intimate partners of the perpetrator and who also reside in either an urban area or in areas adjacent to or near tribal lands.
The first type of protection that different states have enacted is a non-discrimination law. Washington D.C. amended their fair housing statutes to include victims of domestic violence as a protected class of people. Thus, in these jurisdictions, it is against the law to discriminate against someone based upon their status as a domestic violence victim. Some examples of prohibited, discriminatory behavior in these jurisdictions includes: refusing to rent to a victim of domestic violence, charging a victim of domestic violence more rent than other tenants, evicting a victim of domestic violence because of the violence perpetrated against her, and lying to a victim of domestic violence and telling her that there is no availability, when there really is. At least four other states (Arkansas, Indiana, North Carolina, and Washington) have amended their housing codes so that it is illegal to evict a victim of domestic violence based upon the violence committed against her. This provision is similar to the protections contained in the Violence Against Women Act, but, in these states, the protection is extended to all tenants, regardless of the type of housing in which they live.
Further, some landlords attempt to evict victims of domestic violence, citing that the violence in the victim’s unit violated the terms of her lease. In response, several states provide domestic violence victims with a statutorily supported defense to eviction. At least seven states have adopted this protection as law: Colorado, Washington D.C., Iowa, Louisiana (only applies to public housing authorities), New Mexico, Virginia, and Washington. In these jurisdictions, the victim would invoke this affirmative defense if a landlord was attempting to evict her because a crime (the domestic violence) had been committed in her unit, because there had been a dangerous act committed in her unit, or because the domestic violence violated some terms of her lease,because there had been a dangerous act committed in her unit, or because the domestic violence violated some terms of her lease.
Ordinarily, in these jurisdictions, the victim must provide a police report or some other form of documentation proving her status as a domestic violence victim. After she has successfully invoked the statute, the landlord is not allowed to evict the victim.
Moreover, sometimes tenants do a disservice to victims by attempting to punish them for calling for help. In response, at least six states prohibit landlords from limiting victims’ access to police assistance: Arizona, Colorado, Washington D.C., Minnesota, Texas, and Wisconsin. In these states, the tenant has the absolute right to summon emergency assistance, including emergency medical or police assistance.
Many victim advocates recommend changing the locks to some victim’s home as part of a safety plan. At least ten jurisdictions (Arizona, Arkansas, California, Washington D.C., Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, and Washington) have laws that either permit the victim to change the locks on her home or require the landlord to change locks on the victim’s home. If the victim is married to the perpetrator, it is common to require the victim to provide proof that she has a protection order against the perpetrator before the landlord can change the locks. Regardless, the ability to change the locks on her home provides the victim with greater peace of mind and better safety in these situations.
Many victim advocates also recommend moving to another home or apartment as part of the victim’s safety plan. Fortunately, at least fourteen jurisdictions (Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Washington D.C., Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, and Washington) have enacted laws which allow victims of domestic violence to terminate their leases early.
Although all of these state laws provide additional protection to victims, it is hard to ignore the fact that, in the majority of states, the protection is only provided if the victim is an intimate partner or former intimate partner of the perpetrator. Often, victims of sexual violence perpetrated by strangers are afforded no more protection than they are by federal law.
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*National Tribal Trial College is a project of the Southwest Center for Law and Policy (www.swclap.org) This project is supported by Grant No. 2017-SA-AX-K001, awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this publication/program/exhibition are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.