Legal Protections for Tenants Who Are Victims of Domestic Violence

In some states, victims of domestic violence the right to move out of a rental 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 might 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 their landlord with 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, are exempt from these requirements if they have 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 good for the landlord, too—what the landlord loses in rent might pale in comparison with the potential cost of repairing damaged property, lawsuits, or negative publicity if the situation escalates.

Even if your state gives some special protections to domestic violence victims, your landlord can still terminate your tenancy, 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. It is legal for a landlord to terminate the tenancy of a domestic violence victim who falls behind in the rent, just like any other tenant who's behind in rent.

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