Fair Housing and Domestic Violence

Domestic violence disputes have long been an issue intertwined with fair housing, an individual’s right to choose and obtain housing free from unlawful discrimination. Such occurrences threaten security for survivors and their families, even when what they are trying to accomplish is leaving an abusive situation.

Such discrimination often stems from stereotyping, including the narrow belief a survivor’s presence poses a safety threat to other tenants, or that unit damage by the abuser is the survivor’s fault. In addition to the above-stated discrimination, many localities across the country have adopted what are known as “nuisance” ordinances, which pressures landlords into evicting survivors for situations such as calling the police seeking protection from an abuser.

However, in 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began taking steps to better ensure equal and fair housing opportunities for such individuals. Following, we detail the protections.

HUD Guidance for Domestic Violence Victims

On Sept. 13, 2016, HUD issued legal guidance – referred to as the Fair Housing Act guidance on nuisance ordinances – to help local authorities and housing providers protect residents that have been exposed to issues related to domestic disputes. The guidance addresses potential FHA violations when nuisance ordinances and crime-free lease provisions are enforced against victims of domestic violence and related crimes.

As mentioned, nuisance ordinances or the policies and practices associated with them might require or encourage landlords to evict tenants for “excessive” use of police services. Likewise, crime-free lease provisions may allow landlords to evict tenants based on one incident of alleged criminal activity.

For example, a mother might call the police several times over a three-month period because her children are in danger from an abuser. This “behavior” could be considered an “excessive” use of emergency services, thus being categorized as a nuisance. The property owner or landlord could in turn face sanctions, including fines or other administrative penalties. Therefore, landlords often dispel the potential problem by evicting the tenant.

HUD issued its guidance on nuisance abatement ordinances so that landlords, law enforcement agencies, cities, and towns can better understand the implications and to ensure crime-free housing ordinances and crime-free housing programs are fair and do not discriminate. Those who receive Department of Justice funds should be on guard for potential FHA violations and bear in mind that DOJ grants prohibit discrimination.

According to HUD, “The guidance standards described herein apply equally to victims of domestic violence and other crimes and to those in need of emergency services who may be subjected to discrimination prohibited by the Fair Housing Act due to the operation of these ordinances. This guidance therefore addresses both the discriminatory effects and disparate treatment methods of proof under the Act, and briefly describes the obligation of HUD fund recipients to consider the impacts of these ordinances in assessing how they will fulfill their affirmative obligation to further fair housing.”

It goes on to explain that “HUD will issue subsequent guidance addressing more specifically how the Fair Housing Act applies to ensure that local nuisance or crime-free housing ordinances do not lead to housing discrimination because of disability.”

The Final Harassment Provision

HUD has long held that harassment in housing or housing-related transactions on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and familial status is prohibited under the FHA. HUD’s final Harassment Rule is titled “Quid Pro Quo and Hostile Environment Harassment and Liability for Discriminatory Housing Practices.” The rule specifies how HUD will evaluate claims of “hostile environment” and “quid pro quo” harassment in both private and publicly assisted housing. The final rule on harassment in housing includes:

  • Formal standards for evaluating claims of hostile environment and quid pro quo harassment in the housing context
    • Quid Pro Quo Harassment involves subjecting a person to an unwelcome request and making submission to the request a condition related to housing
    • Hostile Environment Harassment involves subjecting a person to unwelcome conduct that is sufficiently severe such that it interferes with the person’s right to use and enjoy the housing
  • Clarification as to when landlords might be held liable under the FHA for illegal harassment or other discriminatory housing practices

Fair Housing, Domestic Violence, and Sex

HUD issued its guidance to coincide with the country’s 22nd anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act. Through the VAWA 2013 reauthorization, protections have been expanded to nearly all HUD programs. Previously, only residents of public housing and Section 8 tenant-based and project-based programs were covered.

“On the 22nd anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, HUD makes it clear that no one should have to choose between calling 9-1-1 and being evicted,” explained then-HUD Secretary Julián Castro when the guidance was issued in 2016. “A home should be a sanctuary where everyone can live without the threat of violence or harassment. The actions we take today will work together to protect the housing rights of victims of harassment and survivors of domestic violence.”

Prohibition on Sex Discrimination

Harassment in housing threatens a resident’s safety and privacy in her (or his) own home. In HUD’s experience enforcing the FHA, low-income women — often racial and ethnic minorities and persons with disabilities — may be particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment in housing.

Because the majority of domestic violence survivors are female, they are also protected by the federal FHA’s prohibition on sex discrimination. Therefore, policies and practices that target or otherwise discriminate against women because of their status as domestic violence survivors are likely unlawful under federal law.

That being said, the FHA is a powerful tool for advocacy on behalf of female survivors because the statute applies to most housing, including privately-owned housing, with few exceptions.

Domestic Violence and the Necessity of Protection

Unwarranted evictions might hold serious, long-term consequences for victims. A number of studies show that 22 to 57 percent of homeless women cite domestic violence as their immediate cause homelessness. Even more, 80 percent of homeless mothers with children say they have experienced domestic violence.

HUD works diligently to provide victims of domestic violence and related crimes with proper living conditions under the FHA and its associated guidance and guidelines.

At the Central Alabama Fair Housing Council, we offer both legal assistance and ongoing education and outreach to promote a better understanding of fair housing rights and to eliminate housing discrimination through enforcing the federal FHA and other laws. To learn more, please visit us online or contact us at (334) 263-4663.

In addition, anyone who believes she or he has experienced discrimination in housing may file a complaint by contacting HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at (800) 669-9777. Housing discrimination complaints may also be filed by going to www.hud.gov/fairhousing, or by downloading HUD’s free housing discrimination app.