Across the country, victims of domestic violence struggle to secure housing after escaping abuse. As a result, domestic violence is among the leading causes of homelessness in the United States. Despite the national scope of the crisis, cities and local governments are often the ones tasked with directly addressing the problem in their communities. Their solutions at times could not be more different, both in terms of their objectives and effects on survivors of domestic violence.
Take New York City, for example, which recently began a rent subsidy program to move victims of domestic violence out of shelters and into affordable housing. The program further supports victims by connecting them with a team of counselors, legal aid attorneys, and other service providers. Additionally, after correlating homicide rates with increasing incidents of domestic violence, the New York Police Department dedicated resources to targeting and decreasing the numbers of homicides involving intimate partners in the City.
New York’s approach—aimed at giving survivors stable housing, support, and protection—stands in stark contrast to a recent policy trend among over 1,400 other local governments that have enacted crime-free housing programs and nuisance property ordinances. These ordinances increase homelessness and housing instability among victims of domestic violence by requiring landlords to evict entire households—including victims—for suspected criminal activity on rental properties., Landlords are often incentivized to evict all of the tenants rather than risking fines or the loss of their rental license, even in instances where eviction is not required by the ordinance.
Many cities also penalize victims for calling the police by deeming those calls a “nuisance” that the property owner must abate by evicting the tenants. As a result, victims are effectively forced to suffer silently or risk homelessness. A major barrier encountered by advocates is breaking the cycle of silence, as many victims of domestic violence already struggle with shame or fear that calling the police may lead to retaliation or further harm.. By linking calling the police to losing your housing, these ordinances undermine the long-standing efforts of domestic violence advocates to ensure that victims feel safe and empowered to call the police. As a result, they are decreasing public safety in communities throughout the country. Recognizing how these ordinances harm victims, Pennsylvania recently passed a law prohibiting municipalities from punishing victims of crime for calling for help.
This penalization of victims for calling the police for the acts of their abusers is also disproportionately felt by low-income women of color, and therefore raises serious fair housing concerns. A 2013 study of Milwaukee’s nuisance ordinance found that women from inner-city, minority communities are bearing the brunt of its enforcement, noting that these women are forced to make the impossible choice “between calling the police on their abusers (only to risk eviction) or staying in their apartments (only to risk more abuse).”
Though New York City is on a promising path towards ensuring that more victims of domestic violence will be safe in their homes, the majority of cities across the country are choosing the wrong approach—too often leading to tragic consequences for women.