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Safe and Sound

It is no secret that violence in the streets is one of Philadelphia’s most pervasive problems. Often unseen, however, is the rampant violence hidden within Philadelphia’s homes, despite its widespread, cross-cultural, and cross-generational presence.[1]

Even more unrealized are the collateral effects of sexual and domestic abuse; victims suffer not only the physical[2] and emotional consequences of abuse[3], but also  the legal issues that arise, such as denial of housing, or eviction based on past incidents of violence. Although more than 100,000 domestic violence reports are filed to the Philadelphia Police Department annually, the city has just two shelters designated for victims of domestic violence, with only 200 beds. Housing discrimination, coupled with a crippling lack of resources for victims of domestic and sexual violence, often leaves the abused with nowhere to turn but the streets.

Community Legal Services regularly assists clients who face housing instability due to discrimination based on past incidents of domestic or sexual violence. Erica* is one of them.

Like many others in her situation, Erica was forced to flee her home because of violence. She called her former landlord to let him know that she wanted her name removed from the lease. At the time, no one had told her about the new law that Community Legal Services had worked with Councilman Greenlee to have passed, which allowed her, as a domestic violence victim, to legally terminate her lease early.

When Erica then applied for public housing, she was shocked to learn that the Philadelphia Housing Authority denied her application because of a landlord tenant judgment against her—a judgment she never knew about. Erica’s landlord never removed her name from the lease, and her abuser never paid the rent after she moved out. A year later, the landlord sued both Erica and her abuser and got a default judgment against both of them for approximately $10,000 of rent.

Erica’s story echoes a problem faced by many of those who have experienced domestic and sexual violence: victimization that continues after their initial abuse. Erica was victimized not only by her abuser, but also by her landlord, and by the Philadelphia Housing Authority that denied her access to housing—for which she was otherwise eligible—based on an issue related to domestic violence.

Community Legal Services has been assisting people like Erica for years, while serving as an advocate in the fight to extend housing rights to victims of sexual and domestic violence.

In 2005, Congress amended the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to include valuable housing protections for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking, who are applying for or living in subsidized housing. In 2013, Congress again amended VAWA to extend these protections to people who have been sexually assaulted and to individuals applying to or living in all types of federally subsidized housing. [4]

CLS has worked closely with the Philadelphia Housing Authority and other subsidized housing providers to ensure their compliance with VAWA’s amendments. CLS has also worked with domestic and sexual violence agencies in Philadelphia to train staff and clients on VAWA’s housing protections, and on the steps people who have experienced domestic and sexual violence can take to access and maintain safe and stable housing for their families. Since CLS began its partnership with these organizations, the number of victims of domestic and sexual violence that CLS’ housing unit assists has significantly increased, many of them coming as direct referrals from the agencies.

CLS has also been at the forefront of the local movement to extend these housing protections to private tenants. CLS has partnered with the Tenant Union Representative Network, a local tenants’ rights organization; former CLS housing attorney Rue Landau, who currently directs the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations; and Councilman Greenlee, who was active in protecting victims of domestic violence in the workplace. CLS, along with these partners, first worked to classify people who have experienced domestic and sexual violence as a protected class under the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance in 2011. In 2012, we were successful in amending Philadelphia’s Unfair Rental Practices Ordinance to include critical protections for victims of domestic and sexual violence.

CLS’ persistent advocacy and commitment to providing housing rights for victims of domestic and sexual violence has yielded meaningful results; in the spring of 2014, CLS represented Erica at her admissions hearing with PHA to appeal the denial of her application. CLS presented VAWA’s Domestic Violence Certification form in support of Erica’s defense that she cannot be denied admission to public housing due to incidents of domestic violence. PHA granted Erica’s appeal, and she now lives in her own public housing unit with her children. In addition, CLS has worked with many domestic and sexual violence victims to successfully terminate their leases early so that they can move into safe housing.

 

*Name has been changed.

 

[1] “Domestic violence affects individuals from all backgrounds, genders and socioeconomic statuses”( WAA )

[2] Over 2,000 visits are made each year to Philadelphia emergency rooms by those who have been assaulted by a partner or ex-partner (WAA)

[3] “Victims of domestic violence face elevated risk of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse…” (WAA)