Legal Protections for Tenants Who Are Victims of Domestic Violence

Your state law might give victims of domestic violence the right to move out early.

Many states extend special protections to tenants who are victims of domestic violence. If you are facing a domestic violence situation (including stalking) and want to move, check first with local law enforcement or a battered women’s shelter regarding special state laws that may apply in domestic violence situations. Some protections your state law might offer include:

  • Antidiscrimination status and eviction protection. Many states make it illegal to discriminate against someone who is a victim of domestic violence. This means that landlords cannot refuse to rent to someone solely because the person is a victim of domestic violence. Landlords also cannot terminate a lease solely because the tenant is a victim of domestic violence.
  • Early termination rights. In many states, a victim of domestic violence can end a lease without penalties after giving the required notice (often 30 days). States typically require that tenants provide proof (such as a protective order) of their status as a domestic violence victim. 

  • Limits on rental clauses. In some states, landlords cannot include clauses providing for termination in the event of a tenant’s call for police help in a domestic violence situation, nor can landlords make tenants pay for the cost of such calls. 

  • Additional considerations for Section 8 tenants. Normally, Section 8 tenants can move without jeopardizing their right to continued public assistance only if they notify their public housing authority ahead of time, terminate their lease according to the lease’s provisions, and locate acceptable replacement housing. Domestic violence victims, however, may circumvent these requirements if they have otherwise complied with other Section 8 requirements, moved in order to protect someone who is or has been a domestic violence victim, and “reasonably believed” that they were imminently threatened by harm from further violence. (Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005, 42 U.S. Code § 1437f(r)(5).)

If your state has no law giving victims of domestic violence early termination rights or other domestic violence protections, don’t automatically assume that you’re stuck. First, if you want to move, appeal to your landlord’s bottom line: The last thing any landlord wants on the property is a disruptive, potentially violent situation. Letting you out of the lease might be just want the landlord wants, too—what the landlord loses in rent may pale in comparison with what the repair costs may be if the property is damaged, not to speak of the fall-out from negative publicity if the situation escalates.

Even if your state gives some special protections to domestic violence victims, these accommodations do not prevent landlords from terminating, if necessary, for nonpayment of rent. Unfortunately, all too often the abuser will leave the property but the remaining victim struggles to pay the rent. Landlords may legally terminate the tenancy of a domestic violence victim who falls behind in the rent, just as they could with any other tenant who’s behind in rent.

When looking for help as a victim of abuse, remember to consider how private your computer, Internet, and phone use are. Consider whether there's anything you can and should do to prevent someone else from learning that you’re doing research or seeking help. Some victims, for instance, might use the same computer or device as the abuser or might have a phone plan that allows the abuser to see the calls they make and receive. Other kinds of technology, like home security cameras and GPS in phones and cars, can also allow for monitoring by the abuser.

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