Violent Residents – Guilty by Association?

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Many of our tenants (and owners, too!) have been going through some tough economic conditions in the last few years. It’s no surprise that incidences of domestic violence tend to increase when a family is suffering economic hardship. Studies show that domestic violence is three times more likely to occur when couples are experiencing high levels of economic strain.  

In just one day, September 15, 2011, 67,399 victims of domestic violence were served by domestic violence programs across the United States. On that day, local domestic violence programs answered more than 21,748 hotline calls. Unfortunately, on the same day, more than 10,581 requests for services were unmet due to inadequate funding or staff available to assist these victims.

Many victims of spousal abuse either flee their housing to escape the abuse, or are evicted by landlords who “don’t want to get in the middle” of a volatile situation. Whether these victims leave voluntarily or through eviction, finding replacement housing is a challenge. If you’re like many landlords, a prospective resident’s prior eviction means an automatic denial of their application to rent.

Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women and children in the United States.  Many victims leave their housing to escape violence and do not have the resources to support housing alone.  Others are evicted from housing due to their batterer’s disruptive and often criminal behavior, or have terrible credit and rental histories due to tactics of financial abuse.  Victims are often also barred from housing due to the risk their batterers pose.

 

Perhaps it’s time, as housing providers, we begin to re-think our hard-line stance on prior evictions?

Could this position, regardless of a prospective tenant’s other qualifications, result in an act of unintentional discrimination? Yes, I think it might, in the case of a domestic violence victim.

Just a couple of months ago, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) charged an apartment manager with sex discrimination for evicting a victim of domestic violence after her boyfriend assaulted her. In its press release announcing the charge, HUD stated:

Victims of domestic violence too often experience housing discrimination because the acts of their abuser.  Housing authorities and landlords evict victims under zero-tolerance crime policies, citing the violent acts of a household member or guest.  Victims are evicted for the property damage caused by their abusers, or for the disturbance caused by their repeated calls to the police.

 

If you think evicting a tenant because of domestic violence is vastly different from refusing to rent to someone for the same reason, think again.

In February of 2011, HUD issued an internal memorandum discussing this issue. The memo is intended as guidance for HUD field officers in determining whether discrimination has occurred when victims of domestic violence are either evicted or denied housing. The memorandum discusses legal theories around proving fair housing claims, all of which have been tested and proven to be legitimate bases on which to bring a claim or charge against a housing provider. One of these legal theories is known as “Disparate Impact.”

In some cases, there is no direct evidence of unequal treatment [by the landlord], but a facially neutral housing policy, procedure, or practice disproportionately affects domestic violence victims… The theory is that, even when consistently applied, women may be disproportionately affected by these policies because, as the overwhelming majority of domestic violence victims, women are often evicted as a result of the violence of their abusers.

 

It appears to me that a “zero-tolerance” policy for prior evictions, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the eviction, might put the property manager at risk for a fair housing claim or charge. I think this is particularly true if that policy disqualifies a victim of domestic abuse who is otherwise qualified to rent from you.

 

What are your thoughts? Do you have a zero-tolerance policy for prior evictions? A zero-tolerance policy for crime? Do you make exceptions to those policies? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment. Thanks!

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About Judy

Property Management Mentor
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3 Responses to Violent Residents – Guilty by Association?

  1. Pat says:

    We will look at the factual circumstances behind any problem a rental app surfaces because I think it is good business. There are times when bad things happen to good people. But lets recognize that opening a rule to subjective interpretation makes the PM vulnerable to the potent charge of “not treating all applicants the same.” I have no respect for HUD policies in evaluating discrimination complaints because, in my opinion, many of their people at all levels have agendas that they push at the expense of objective evaluation and the PM gets caught in the middle. Let’s grant that elimination of discrimination must be a priority goal for us all, but the HUD world of Fair Housing rules and arbitration could have been invented by George Orwell. Want examples?

  2. Judy says:

    I agree with you, Pat – opening the rental app evaluation process to subjectivity can indeed increase the property manager’s risk of appearing to discriminate. I’m a big fan of drawing hard lines in the sand, when it comes to evaluating rental prospects. However, given the circumstances outlined by HUD in that internal memo, I can see how a zero-tolerance policy on prior evictions could have an unintended consequence of discrimination. It’s challenging for a property manager to walk that line – protecting the owner’s interests, while staying on the right side of fair housing issues.