By Sandra S. Park, Staff Attorney, ACLU Women’s Rights Project
Tanica Lewis and her children were evicted from their apartment after her ex-partner, Reuben Thomas, broke in while she was at work. Her landlord decided that Thomas was her "guest" and held her responsible for his property damage, despite the protective order she previously had obtained against him and his arrest for home invasion.
After Kathy Cleaves-Milan reported that her ex-partner had threatened her with a gun, she and her daughter were evicted. A copy of her order of protection was stapled to the eviction notice, and the housing manager stated, "The basis for that eviction was the fact the violence had occurred."
These are just two instances when landlords have blamed survivors of domestic violence for the crimes of abusers. They reveal how stereotypes about victims – for example, that victims invite and therefore are accountable for the abuse – can result in their homelessness. Such outdated thinking about domestic violence is the only explanation for why Thomas could ever have been considered Ms. Lewis’ "guest," or why a housing manager would think that an order of protection could provide justification for evicting a victim.
Responding to advocacy by the ACLU and others, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued new regulations yesterday implementing the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that emphasized the need to protect domestic violence victims, not evict them. It instructed public housing authorities and owners of Section 8-subsidized properties to take actions that could include: "transferring the victim to a different unit, barring the perpetrator from the property, contacting law enforcement to increase police presence or develop other plans to keep the property safe, or seeking other legal remedies to prevent the perpetrator from acting on a threat."
HUD also recognized that stereotypical assumptions about victims often lead to their eviction. It said: "Restrictions predicated on public safety cannot be based on stereotypes, but must be tailored to particularized concerns about individual residents."
Unfortunately, VAWA and the regulations do not apply to all housing in this country, including the apartments in which Ms. Lewis and Ms. Cleaves-Milan lived. But they are an important step in guaranteeing that domestic violence survivors can find safety and keep their homes. HUD should continue to strengthen these protections and finalize regulations prohibiting sexual harassment in housing so that one’s home is truly a safe place.