If domestic violence is occurring in your rental unit, make sure you know how to handle the situation.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), on average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. This equates to more than 10 million women and men each year. This kind of crime accounts for approximately 15% of all violent crimes. 77% of domestic violence crimes take place at or near the victim’s home, as presented by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. If you also consider that about 37% of households rent their homes, domestic violence in your property is not unlikely. For this reason, it is essential that you familiarize yourself with landlords’ responsibilities regarding domestic abuse and the tenant’s involvement.
What is Domestic Violence?
Before taking any action, it’s important that you understand what domestic violence is and how it affects victims. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, domestic violence (also referred to as intimate partner violence (IPV), domestic abuse, or relationship abuse) is a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.
Domestic violence includes behaviors that physically harm, scare, or threaten a partner. It also includes preventing a partner from doing what they wish or forcing them to behave in ways they do not want. The abuse may take the form of physical and/or sexual violence, threats and intimidation, emotional abuse, and economic deprivation. It’s also important to keep in mind that abusers and victims can be men and women alike, so don’t dismiss a situation just because it isn’t what you expect.
Many of these different forms of domestic violence/abuse can occur at any time in the same intimate relationship. Refer to this wheel of domestic violence presented by the Hotline to help you identify the different forms of abuse:
Domestic violence includes behaviors that physically harm, arouse fear, prevent a partner from doing what they wish or force them to behave in ways they do not want. It includes the use of physical and sexual violence, threats and intimidation, emotional abuse and economic deprivation. Many of these different forms of domestic violence/abuse can be occurring at any one time within the same intimate relationship.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) outlines certain regulations on how landlords in the U.S. may treat victims of past or ongoing domestic violence. Make sure you check your state laws, since there may be specific rules that affect tenants who are victims of domestic abuse or other violent crimes.
Under the VAWA, a landlord cannot:
- Refuse to rent to a potential tenant because the applicant is, or has been, a victim of domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking. (This also coincides with the rules set forth in the Fair Housing Act.)
- Evict a tenant who is the victim of domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking because of threats or violent acts committed against the victim; even if the abuse took place on the property or was inflicted by a household member or guest, you are not allowed to evict your tenant.
- Give special treatment to or make exceptions for a tenant who is a victim of domestic violence (i.e., late rent, noise, damage to the rental unit, or anything else that would violate the lease agreement).
What Landlords Must Do
First, and foremost, if someone is actively violent on the property, you have every 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.
If Your Tenant is the Victim
Your tenant may receive certain protections from you in the event of a domestic violence situation. However, the tenant must provide some kind of proof. This can vary from state to state, but usually, a tenant would need:
- A domestic abuse/sexual assault/stalking restraining order against the abuser
- Evidence of a criminal charge against the abuser for domestic abuse/sexual assault/stalking for the tenant, their child, or household member
- A condition of release where the abuser is ordered not to contact the tenant, their child, or household member because of domestic abuse/sexual assault/stalking
- A protective order or a letter from a “qualified third party,” such as a law enforcement officer, court employee, physician, nurse or other health care provider, counselor, clergy member, or crime victim advocate
Once the tenant provides proof of domestic violence, the tenant may ask you for special protections, such as:
- The removal of the abuser from the property or from a shared lease. You may ask for a police officer to remove the abuser from the property, or, if the abuser is a tenant, you may evict them without providing them a right to cure.
- Breaking the lease, given that the tenant also provides proper notice to quit the premises. No matter what, you must allow the victim to terminate their part of the lease if they ask to stop renting.
- Changing the locks. This can be something that the tenant does themselves (and then provides you with access) or asks that you do within 48 hours. You can charge the tenant for this cost, but you must also allow for them to be changed right away if the victim requests so.
If you find out that your tenant is a victim of domestic violence without them telling you, and you are having issues on the property because of it, you may have grounds to evict the victim. However, the circumstances depend on your local jurisdiction. In California, for example, landlords are prohibited from evicting a victim simply because of domestic abuse issues, unless all of the following apply:
- The victim continues to allow the abuser to visit the property
- The landlord believes that the presence of the abuser poses a physical threat to other tenants, guests, invitees, licensees, or a tenant’s right to quiet enjoyment.
- The landlord has already provided a written three-day notice to correct items 1 and 2.
If Your Tenant is the Abuser
It’s not always easy to identify the abuser from an outside perspective. However, if you have reliable information and evidence, you can evict the abuser. If the victim is a household member or joint tenant, you can evict the abuser and let the victim stay through a process called bifurcation, which is outlined in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. You can also take other actions, such as:
- Filing your own restraining order against the abuser. If you’ve evicted someone and you don’t want them on the rental property, you can keep them off the property by filing your own restraining order. A restraining order would give you rights to call the police and have them arrested if they showed up to the property. Oftentimes, you will qualify to file a restraining order if you have already evicted the abuser for issues regarding domestic violence. Information on how to file restraining orders should be at your courthouse.
- Hand out brochures or flyers with information and resources for domestic abuse victims and neighbors. You can make one of these yourself or find a version online to provide your tenants with.
- Consider posting flyers around the complex/building, putting brochures in tenant’s mailboxes, or sending a mass email to promote safety and security. Here is a great example of a domestic violence brochure.
Ensuring your tenant’s privacy, especially in a domestic violence situation, is essential. If a tenant confides to you that they are a victim of domestic violence, you are most likely required to keep that information confidential.
Unless the victim provides you with the explicit consent in writing, or a court order requires you to, you are not allowed to disclose the issue to anybody.
Do not release any information to staff, neighbors, or other tenants, without reviewing your state laws or consulting with an attorney. Breaking confidentiality with your tenant is an invasion of privacy and could result in a HIPAA violation.
Provisions for Section 8 Housing
Landlord-tenant laws generally function on the state level, but any incidents occurring in Section 8 housing is also regulated by federal law. The Violence Against Women and Children Act of 2005 claims that a Section 8 tenant may move out of the rental unit without jeopardizing their Section 8 benefits if there is “reasonable belief” that staying would endanger the tenant or a child. As long as the tenant complies with the terms of the lease and notifies their public housing authority in advance, then they are free to break the lease and move out.
However, the Violence Against Women and Children Act does have an exception for victims who are forced to move in order to avoid exposing themselves or loved ones to further domestic violence. Landlords for Section 8 Housing should always keep the well-being and safety of their tenants in mind, as Section 8 has very specific requirements for landlords.
In addition, the Violence Against Women Act also prohibits discrimination against prospective tenants who have been victims of domestic violence in the past. Do not make any assumptions about an individual’s experiences and base your judgment off of them. Refer to the Fair Housing Act to review a landlord’s responsibility to be fair when screening potential tenants.
Non-Payment of Rent
Normally, tenants who are victims of domestic abuse are still required to pay rent in full and on time. You can evict a tenant for non-payment of rent in any case, though every situation is different — just be sure to use your best judgment.
If you do not want to evict the tenant, there are alternatives to help the victim in a difficult situation. 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.
Resources for Victims
Domestic violence is a serious and dangerous reality; we hope it never occurs in your rental unit, but if it does, make sure you are informed and have the right resources at your disposal.
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE)
- National Dating Abuse Helpline: 1-866-331-9474
- Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center: 1-866-USWOMEN (879-6636)
- National Child Abuse Hotline/Childhelp: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453)
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673 (HOPE)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)
- National Center for Victims of Crime: 1-202-467-8700
- National Human Trafficking Resource Center/Polaris Project: 1-888-373-7888
- National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights: 1-510-465-1984
- National Coalition for the Homeless: 1-202-737-6444
- National Resource Center on Domestic Violence: 1-800-537-2238
- Futures Without Violence: 1-888-792-2873
- National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health: 1-312-726-7020 ext. 2011
For more resources, visit the website for The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV).