Vermont Bar Journal
Spring 2008 - #10.
After the Violence: Using Fair Housing Laws to Keep Women and Children Safe at Home
THE VERMONT BAR JOURNAL #173, Volume 34, No. 4 SPRING 2008
After the Violence: Using Fair Housing Laws to Keep Women and Children Safe at Homeby Meris L. Bergquist, Esq.Victims of domestic violence often return to abusive partners because they cannot find long-term housing(fn1)
Home is the most important place in the world.(fn2) Most people experience home as a safe haven and refuge from the outside world. This experience of home is shattered when a woman suffers domestic violence from an intimate partner and tries to end the relationship. Victims who attempt to terminate an abusive relationship face tremendous barriers, including the very real possibility of homelessness.(fn3) Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness in Vermont and across the nation.(fn4) Thus, at the very moment when the need for a safe, stable home is the greatest, a female victim of domestic violence is most likely to be evicted and unable to secure new housing because she is a victim.
This article will explore the ways in which federal and state fair housing laws can be used to prevent the homelessness of women and children who experience domestic violence in Vermont. The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005 (VAWA 2005), provide critical civil rights protections for some female victims of domestic violence who are discriminated against in their efforts to maintain or secure housing.(fn5) Unfortunately, these protections are not available to every woman who needs them. Many landlords and tenants are unaware of the protections available to female victims under these federal statutes, and even if a woman knows her rights under the law, she may not have the resources to initiate a federal civil rights action. Therefore, to protect the housing rights of female victims of domestic violence in Vermont, and to make it less likely that a woman will return to an abusive partner, I will argue that Vermont's fair housing statute, the Vermont Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act,(fn6) should be amended to provide equal housing opportunities to victims of domestic violence.
The correlation between domestic violence and homelessness is very well documented. In 2004, 44 percent of the nation's mayors (including Peter Clavelle of Burlington, Vermont) identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness.(fn7) The lack of affordable housing, often combined with loss of employment, leads many victims of domestic violence and their children into homelessness if they try to leave abusive relationships.(fn8)
Undoubtedly, the practice of evicting female victims of domestic violence-- because of the violence committed against them--contributes to these statistics and is a national problem. In 2005, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) and the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), conducted a survey of seventy-six legal and social services providers around the country to analyze the extent to which victims of domestic violence were subject to housing denials and evictions.(fn9) This study showed that 11 percent of all evictions were evictions of victims of domestic violence because of the domestic violence against them. Some women were evicted for calling the police or requesting emergency assistance. Some women were evicted because of the abuser's behavior or crimes. Some were evicted after obtaining a civil protection order against the abuser.
The inability of victims of domestic violence to secure new housing is also a national problem. The NLCHP/NNEDV found that 28 percent of all housing denials handled by the service providers were based on a woman's status as a victim of domestic violence.(fn10) Some women were denied housing because they had resided in a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Some women were denied because the victim had a history of obtaining a civil protection order, or a record of calling the police, or simply because the previous landlord stated that the applicant had experienced domestic violence.
There is much evidence that the problem is even worse in Vermont, where domestic violence is the leading cause of violent death.(fn11) When Congress studied the problem of housing discrimination against female victims of domestic violence prior to passage of VAWA 2005, it found that rural women faced greater adversity: "[v]ictims of domestic violence in rural areas face additional barriers, challenges and unique circumstances...