Ashlee Rousey hadn't planned to call the police when her ex-boyfriend showed up at her apartment in late February 2008.
A month before, Rousey had reached out to a local domestic violence advocacy group, saying her ex had abused her, and moved into her own apartment in King County, Washington. When Rousey asked her abuser to leave, she said he grew agitated, refused and threw a rock at her window. Rousey called the police, who issued a trespass notice barring him from the property.
What Rousey didn't realize was that by reaching out for help, she ran the risk of being evicted. According to court documents, when she told the property management company, Indigo Real Estate Services, what happened, the company told Rousey she would have to vacate her apartment within five days. While the company acknowledged that Rousey's abuser had caused the disruption, she was held responsible. Indigo did not respond to Mic's request for comment.
Victims of domestic abuse like Rousey face homelessness at elevated rates. The National Network to End Domestic Violence reported 38% of domestic abuse victims are homeless at some point in their lives, and between 22% and 57% of homeless women say domestic violence has been the immediate cause of their loss of housing.
"It's unconscionable that victims are removed from their homes and face repeated discrimination simply because of the heinous crimes committed against them."
A key part of the problem is that victims of domestic violence can be evicted from their homes for being involved in domestic disturbances, particularly ones that require police intervention. Estimates from the American Civil Liberties Union indicate that in hundreds of municipalities across the country, victims can be thrown out of their homes for calling the police repeatedly. The problem disproportionately impacts poor women and women of color, who face high rates of intimate partner violence and have fewer options if they are evicted.
"It's unconscionable that [victims] are removed from their homes and face repeated discrimination simply because of the heinous crimes committed against them," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said in a statement to Mic.
To address the problem, this week Shaheen introduced the Fair Housing for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Survivors Act, which would amend the Fair Housing Act to classify abuse survivors as a protected class. It would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against someone because of a history of sexual or domestic violence, and would prohibit private property owners from evicting victims if they call for help. However, the measure still needs to be moved through committee, and likely won't be up for a vote until the next legislative session. Shaheen plans to promote the bill during the coming congressional recess.
"We need to establish protections and rights for survivors, make it easier for victims to report assault and serve justice to the persons who commit these vicious crimes," Shaheen said.
Not only does evicting survivors of domestic abuse pose the immediate threat of homelessness, it can also make it difficult for tenants to secure housing in the future. If victims try to seek new housing with an eviction record, potential landlords can reject a lease application without considering the context.
That's the problem that's been plaguing Rousey since 2008. While she was able to stay in her apartment after Indigo withdrew from eviction proceedings, her name and history of domestic violence were recorded in documents. Landlords also tend to reject housing applicants who list domestic violence shelters as their previous residence, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reported.
"It's been a few years now, and I'm still having difficulties finding housing," Rousey said in a phone call with Mic on Wednesday. "I'm actually in a motel now. I just applied for an apartment the other day and got denied because of my eviction. Seven years down the road, I'm still going through it."
Can landlords do that?
The practice of kicking out victims for being victims sounds like it should be illegal, but survivors often lack legal protections preventing this type of housing discrimination. Landlords can, and often do, include lease provisions stipulating that criminal activity of any kind on the property is grounds for removal, giving them the power to evict entire households if they believe tenants are disruptive.
"Leases almost never distinguish between tenants who perpetrate [violence] and tenants who might be victims," said Sandra Park, a staff attorney for the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "So what we see often is situations where a survivor of domestic violence ends up facing eviction because the landlord is blaming the victim for the abuse that occurred in the home."
Park and other victims' advocates agree that one of the greatest threats to domestic violence survivors isn't their leases or landlords, but the law itself. Under local nuisance ordinances, property owners face outside pressure — in the form of fines or criminal charges — to kick out tenants who become a "chronic nuisance," or whose behavior results in too many 911 calls.
In practice, these ordinances overwhelmingly target victims of domestic violence, who are often faced with the decision to get abused, get help from law enforcement or get kicked out of their homes. The thousands of nuisance ordinances across the country have varied histories, with older iterations introduced during prohibition to crack down on speakeasies and others around 50 years later as part of the war on drugs. Historically, the enforcement of nuisance laws has been highly racialized, singling out low-income communities of color. A 2013 study of inner-city policing in Milwaukee found that nuisance ordinances were disproportionately enforced in low-income, black communities.
"My belief is these ordinances originated not to stick it to survivors of domestic violence — it's a byproduct," said Kate Walz, director of housing justice for the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. "Local governments perceived that they had an influx of racial minorities into their communities ... so they passed these ordinances to 'control' rental housing."
"The impact on poor women of color is devastating."
Gretchen Arnold, an assistant professor of women's and gender studies at St. Louis University, has studied the impact of nuisance ordinances on battered women and found enforcement policies reinforced gender inequality and increased marginalization of domestic abuse victims.
"The impact on poor women of color is devastating," Arnold said. "These are women who have very few alternatives and very few other resources to defend themselves against their abusers, and then they have to defend themselves against the law and the eviction."
Arnold, Walz and other advocates say plenty of landlords don't want to comply with the ordinances, especially in cases in which they know tenants have been calling the police because they're being victimized. But local police forces frequently put additional pressure on property owners to weed out renters who call too much.
"Law enforcement agencies swear up and down they aren't targeting domestic violence survivors," Walz said. "They try to absolve themselves of culpability or liability, claim they're not saying [landlords] should evict victims, but they are."
The fight to protect victims
The legislation Shaheen proposed has the potential to force exemptions in nuisance ordinances that so often get victims into trouble. Under the proposed law, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Justice would have a path to challenge nuisance ordinances that don't provide exemptions for domestic violence victims.
But "establishing housing protections for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault is one piece of this larger puzzle," Shaheen acknowledged.
Advocates have also turned to the courts to fight nuisance ordinances as well as other forms of housing discrimination. Currently, discrimination against domestic violence survivors is prohibited by the Violence Against Women Act, but it only applies to federally subsidized housing; victims in privately owned housing don't get the same explicit protections from discrimination on the basis of domestic violence or sexual assault.
Park and her colleagues at the ACLU have been involved in judicial as well as legislative efforts to change nuisance ordinances in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Illinois. The ACLU has argued in court that the enforcement of nuisance laws without exemptions for domestic violence victims, the majority of whom are women, constitutes sex discrimination.
But these wins have only created a patchwork of protections for abuse survivors. Arguing that nuisance ordinances effectively result in sex discrimination is not applicable in every situation, Park said. "We could be talking about a male survivor, which makes it difficult to make a [sex discrimination] argument. There are a lot of situations where same-sex domestic violence takes place, and the sex-based discrimination argument has not been well-accepted in courts in those cases."
The likelihood of facing housing discrimination isn't the only reason victims of intimate partner violence might choose not to seek assistance from the police or domestic violence shelters, but it does play a major role in many people's decisions to stay silent. As Arnold put it, their choices are rational, particularly in the face of rampant housing discrimination and financial insecurity.
"If you're a poor woman of color who can stay with this guy who beats you periodically, at least you have a place for your children to live and eat and have a life," Arnold said. "If you leave and become homeless, your children could be taken by the state; you could lose everything. You don't know what the future holds. There are very few other options for survivors."