Case Before Supreme Court Threatens Fair Housing Policy That Protects Victims of Domestic Violence

One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, and finding or remaining in safe, affordable housing is critical to surviving that trauma. Discriminatory housing policies often stand in the way of overcoming abusive relationships and finding a safe, healthy place to live. Ninety-five percent of domestic violence cases involve female victims of male partners, and every one of those women should have the right to choose where to live, without consideration of any domestic violence she has experienced. Current law protects victims of domestic violence to ensure they can find safe housing in the community they want to live in, but the Supreme Court is hearing a case this week that could overturn this law, putting these women and children at risk.

More than 60 percent of domestic violence incidents happen at home, and discriminatory policies that make remaining in affordable housing difficult for families that experience domestic violence are all too common. Many apartment leases contain provisions that threaten eviction under "zero-tolerance for violence" policies and rules that prohibit "any crime" or use of the dwelling for "unlawful or offensive purposes." The obvious reason for these policies is to maintain the health and safety of rental communities, but an unintended consequence is that these policies threaten the survival of victims of domestic violence and their children. In fact, nationally, 11 percent of evictions involve victims of domestic violence who are evicted due to abuse.

In practice, women in rental housing who experience violence at the hands of their partners are faced with an impossible choice: call the police and be evicted, or submit to the abusive relationship. Many times, women do not even have that choice as the violence is witnessed or reported to police by neighbors or landlords. When faced with eviction, domestic violence survivors run the risk of homelessness and unemployment. Between 22 and 50 percent of homeless women report that their homelessness is a direct result of domestic violence, and in Minnesota 46 percent of homeless women reported they had stayed in abusive relationships in the past because they had nowhere to go. Studies suggest that as many as 27 percent of victims experience job loss directly resulting from domestic violence. According to reports, 47 percent of homeless school-aged children and a third of children under the age of five have witnessed domestic violence in their families.

The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination based on many factors, including gender and the presence of children in a family. Currently, victims of housing discrimination may bring a complaint when there is evidence that a housing provider intended to discriminate, or when a practice or policy that is not intentionally discriminatory has a negative, or "disparate," impact on a particular group of people. The disparate impact provision of the Fair Housing Act has been used to protect women who are survivors of domestic violence and their children from housing discrimination. The disparate impact doctrine makes clear that landlords should choose policies that achieve their intended goals but that do not unfairly and unnecessarily harm women, families with children, and other people protected by the Fair Housing Act. Unfortunately, this very mechanism used to protect female survivors of domestic violence and their children is at risk in a case being heard before the Supreme Court on January 21.

The YWCA has a long tradition of supporting civil rights that empower women and eliminate racism. As the largest network of domestic violence shelters around the country serving nearly 1 million women and children annually, we are committed to supporting anti-violence policies and programs that protect survivors of domestic violence. In 2012, 46 percent of YWCAs provided supportive housing programs that benefited homeless women and their families, teen mothers, and those suffering from substance abuse or mental illness. Our shelters are places women can go to free themselves from abusive relationships, keep their children safe from their abusers, and transition into secure and independent living situations. We have advocated for the strongest protections for women and children, including those that defend against housing discrimination and the threat of homelessness. The Fair Housing Act contains a critical tool that helps keep women and their children safe from homelessness or from falling back into the hands of their abuser.

By eliminating the disparate impact provisions of the Fair Housing Act, the Supreme Court would be responsible for putting the lives of women and children who experience domestic violence back into the hands of danger. The YWCA strongly urges the Supreme Court to make the right decision and uphold the disparate impact provision of the Fair Housing Act.