Legal Protections for Tenants Who Are Victims of Domestic Violence

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

States have begun to extend special protections to 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. Here are some of the laws that may apply.

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 (or terminate) solely because the person is a victim of domestic violence.

Early termination rights. In many states, a victim of domestic violence can end a lease with notice (often 30 days). States typically require that the tenant provide proof (such as a protective order) of her 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. 

Section 8 tenants. Normally, Section 8 tenants may 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, have 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(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 would any tenant who hasn’t paid.

Be mindful when looking for help with domestic violence, and remember to consider how private your computer, Internet, and phone use are. Think about whether there's anything you can and should do to prevent someone else from learning that you’re doing research or seeking help regarding domestic violence.

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