In the face of covid-19, domestic violence has been on the rise. Protections for victims of domestic violence and the rights of landlords involved are more pertinent than ever. In 2013 Governor Deval Patrick signed into law S. 2402, “An Act Relative to Housing Rights for Victims of Domestic Violence, Rape, Sexual Assault, and Stalking.” The bill extended lease rights to domestic violence victims by allowing them to break their lease, change apartment locks, avoid eviction in light of police intervention , and being forced to waive these rights when signing a new lease.
Housing, safety, and civil rights are paramount in a case involving a victim of domestic abuse. Both the tenant and the landlord should be responsible for knowing the special rights of a victim of domestic violence. Pennsylvania Family Law for example, specifically 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6108, states that the court may evict the abuser of the residence if the residence is leased to both parties or solely the victim and mandate rent or mortgage payments to the victim. The landlord must recognize protections for the victim and allow the victim to be released from the lease prematurely. The rights of the landlord include evicting the victim if they fail to pay rent. In Massachusetts, domestic family law protections can be found in chapter 186 section 24.
In the commonwealth, a tenant may end the rental agreement with the submission of a written notification to the owner demonstrating that a member of the household is the victim of domestic abuse, sexual harassment, and or stalking. The owner of the property may request evidence of such abuse along with the name of the abuser. A more formal process for landlords to request documentation of domestic violence is outlined in the Domestic Violence Bill passed in 2013. The landlord may request a letter from a qualified party proving that the tenant is a victim of domestic violence, rape, or sexual assault. Qualified parties may include a police officer, district attorney, victim-witness advocate, probation office, licensed medical provider, social worker, or licensed mental health professional. If the conditions are met, the tenant must leave the premises within three months or have the lease voided.
Tenant rights for women are safeguarded by the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”), which is particularly relevant against the backdrop of coivd-19. VAWA is a legislation that was first passed in 1994 and reauthorized in 2000, 2005, and 2013 by President Obama. This specific legislation highlights and protects all survivors from eviction due to property damage that may have occurred during any violent acts committed against them. Victim advocates or victims themselves should be aware that discrimination when applying for housing or eviction without cause can result in violation of VAWA. The act goes beyond private housing and protects survivors from being evicted from federal housing programs or from having a federal housing subsidy terminated. Any eviction notice must be paired with a written notice. As exemplified by the strain experienced by both tenants and landlords due to the pandemic and rise of domestic violence, the commonwealth should support both parties in the financial and emotional conflicts of such cases.