Denying Housing to Survivors of Domestic Violence May Violate Fair Housing Laws
It is hard enough for anyone to find decent, affordable housing. Finding housing may be even harder for women who are survivors of domestic violence. Why would this be?
In some cases, the landlord may have a policy of denying an apartment to someone who is a survivor of domestic violence. The landlord may be afraid that the abuser will go on causing problems. In that case, the landlord intends to keep out survivors of domestic violence. A woman in the State of Washington sued her landlord under fair housing laws because she says that happened to her.
In other cases, the landlord may have a policy that does not say anything about survivors of domestic violence. However, the landlord's policy may have a bad effect on survivors of violence. In one Oregon case, Tiffani Ann Alvera was threatened with eviction because the landlord had a policy of "zero tolerance." Anyone involved in violence was evicted. Even though Ms. Alvera was the victim of abuse, not the abuser, she was threatened with eviction.
In both these cases, the tenant used fair housing laws to challenge the landlord's actions. Fair housing laws make it illegal to discriminate against someone based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status (presence of children), and disability.
Discrimination on the basis of sex has been illegal under the federal Fair Housing Act since 1974. So, it would generally be illegal for a landlord:
- to refuse to rent to someone based on the person's sex.
- to treat women tenants worse than men tenants.
- to sexually harass a tenant.
The list of protected groups does NOT include "survivors of domestic violence." However, the policy does not have to say anything about women as such. For this kind of discrimination case, the tenant does not have to show that the landlord intended to discriminate against women. Proof of this type of claim is usually shown by statistics, such as how many women are affected by the policy.
In Ms. Alvera's case, the landlord's "zero tolerance" policy didn't say anything about women as such. However, HUD said that women are approximately 8 times more likely than men to be victims of domestic violence, and that nationally, 90 to 95 percent of victims of domestic violence are women. HUD decided the landlord's policy had a "disparate impact"-a worse effect on women.
Once a "disparate impact" (worse effect on women) is shown, the landlord has to come up with a good reason (a "business necessity") for the policy or practice. The tenant can then try to show that the policy or practice is not really needed, or that some other policy would do just as well, and would not have a worse effect on women. Ms. Alvera was successful in her discrimination claim. HUD said that the landlord's policy was not justified by "business necessity." The parties eventually worked out an agreement after the case was filed in court.
What can tenants do if the landlord has discriminated against them? Tenants can file a complaint with a civil rights agency, or go to court, or both. The time limits for each one are different:
- 300 days to file with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC). To contact the ICRC, you may:
oClick here to get to the ICRC website with details on the process in English and Spanish plus the forms to file a complaint. The full URL is: https://icrc.iowa.gov/file-complaint
oYou can reach the ICRC toll-free at 1-800-457-4416, or in Des Moines calling area at (515) 281-4121. The Fax number is (515) 242-5840.
oYou can write to the ICRC at:
Iowa Civil Rights Commission
Grimes State Office Building
400 E. 14th Street
Des Moines, IA 50319-1004
- One year to file with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) . To contact HUD, you may:
oClick here to go to their website (The full URL is: https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/online-complaint ) which includes an online complaint form along with details on federal housing discrimination laws.
oYou can reach a Fair Housing and Economic Opportunity Specialist at 1-800-669-9777 or TTY 1-800-877-8339.
- Two years to file a lawsuit (see information below)
If the situation is urgent, such as an eviction notice, the tenant may need to raise the fair housing issues in court. Fair housing claims can be raised as a defense to eviction. It is generally best to talk to a lawyer about the best remedy. Low-income tenants may be able to get help from Iowa Legal Aid. Call 1-800-532-1275, or see Iowa Legal Aid's website: www.iowalegalaid.org.