Angry, escalating voices. Children crying. Glass breaking. Gun shots. These are sounds nobody likes to hear from the apartment next door.
But, thanks to a new federal law passed in January, apartment owners and managers have a new way to stop the sounds of domestic violence for those using public housing or using federally funded Section 8 housing vouchers. The law empowers owners and managers to evict the domestic abuser while keeping the victims housed and safe. "Many domestic violence victims won't call the police because they would lose their housing and that makes it even worse," says Deborah Widiss, staff attorney for Washington, D.C.-based Legal Momentum. "This law will help make sure that everybody is safer."
Domestic violence is a problem for apartment firms and society at large. About 38 percent of domestic violence victims become homeless, and a 2004 survey found that 44 percent of homeless people cited domestic violence as the cause, according to Widiss.
Even with the new law, though, there is still much work to be done. Advocates and apartment firms alike say they are still trying to determine just how the law will work. (The new provisions do not apply to rentals without any federal subsidy, although some state laws specifically prohibit evicting domestic violence victims regardless of federal funding. But the new law does strengthen existing federal and state fair housing laws that prevent discrimination against victims, Widiss says.)
Even the National Multi Housing Council is still working on an implementation plan for its members. "These are all things that will be developed," says Lisa Blackwell, NMHC's vice president of housing policy, which lobbied Congress for the final version of the law. "This is all new, and we are going to have to work together to figure this out. But this law provides the framework."
Blackwell says it will take several months to compile a list of recommendations.
Splitting the Lease
The law, often referred to as the "Violence Against Women Act," is actually a five-year extension of legislation that was first passed in 1994. The original draft of the 2006 amended law would have been detrimental to apartment owners and managers, Blackwell says. She says the original version would have made domestic violence victims a protected class under the Fair Housing Act and severely limited owners' rights. Instead, the new version allows property owners and managers to split a lease, removing the abuser's legal right to the apartment while continuing to accept the rest of the family, she says.
Such actions are not taken merely on faith. If a victim claims protection from eviction under the new law, the landlord can ask for proof that the resident is a victim. The proof comes as a HUD-certified form that has not been created yet, according to Widiss.
"The whole point of this is to be able to certify that people are, in fact, victims and allow them to bifurcate the lease," Blackwell says. "It helps move the process along for the victim and the owner."
But it doesn't hamstring owners and managers. The law still allows the eviction of domestic violence victims for lease violations that are not related to domestic disturbances.
Miami, calls the displacement of domestic violence victims the "ugly underbelly that has to be exposed." But most property managers already go out of their way to help such victims whether the law requires it or not, he says.
And property managers do encounter such situations. Ell, a former property manager himself, says on-site staffers usually find out about domestic violence problems from neighbors who hear the shouting and call the police. Once the violence is uncovered, Fifteen Group managers typically let both neighbors and the victim know that they are there to help stop the abuse.
"Our property managers already help victims of domestic violence however they can. This law will continue that" and simply formalize their approach, says Ell, who is still educating his property managers on how to incorporate the new changes into Fifteen Group's practices.
Luckily for Ell, he has not had to test the new law yet. But the staff at Stratus Real Estate, a third-party manager in Woodland Hills, Calif., has taken the law on a test drive–twice.
Since President Bush signed the law into effect on Jan. 5, Stratus officials have helped two different domestic violence victims get their abusers out, says Steve Heimler, president and CEO of the firm, which manages 19,000 apartments.
"At first I think people were confused about how to handle these victims," Heimler says, adding that many of the victims had no credit or background information that had been established separately from their abusers. "It can be a risk to take on these tenants. But with this new law and the cooperation of advocacy groups and our property managers, they dove right in."
–Erin Massey is a freelance writer in San Diego, Calif.