No Safe Haven: Shrinking Pool of Affordable Housing Creates Additional Hardship for Survivors of Domestic Abuse

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Analysis Human Rights

No Safe Haven: Shrinking Pool of Affordable Housing Creates Additional Hardship for Survivors of Domestic Abuse

Sheila Bapat

Dwindling options for affordable housing create ongoing challenges for survivors of domestic violence.

This is the first of our two-part series covering Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

For survivors of domestic violence (DV), the need for affordable housing is dire. According to the 2011 Domestic Violence Counts National Census, lack of housing comprised 64 percent of reported unmet needs for DV survivors. DV has long been cited as a cause of homelessness. And in order to avoid homelessness, many DV survivors choose to stay with abusers because they cannot afford to live on their own.

Against this backdrop, it is especially troubling that affordable housing options in the United States are dwindling overall. Last month, the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness (ICPH) issued a policy brief about the shrinking pool of affordable rental housing options throughout the United States. Since the economy took a hit in 2008, rising rent costs and inadequate levels of subsidized housing have made it harder for many Americans to afford a place to live, ICPH found. These conclusions have been corroborated by other organizations including the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). In its February 2012 Housing Spotlight, the NLIHC pointed out that low income renters have been competing for a smaller and smaller pool of affordable housing. (Low income is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s median family income categories.)

These recent trends about the dearth of affordable housing in the United States could exacerbate the difficulties experienced by DV survivors in finding safe places to live.

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“A key reason why many survivors stay in abusive relationships is the lack of affordable alternative housing options,” said Meliah Schultzman, staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project (NHLP). “In many jurisdictions, the waiting lists for affordable housing are quite long, which is not practical for survivors who need to relocate immediately.”

Short-term shelters are often the first place DV survivors turn, but resources are tight among shelters as well. Since 2010, 83 percent of housing and supportive services providers have reported increased demand for services for DV survivors, but funding for these services hasn’t kept pace with the demand. Case in point: Harmony House in Springfield, Missouri has been providing temporary shelter for domestic violence (DV) survivors and their children since the mid seventies. In the last year, the shelter has served 550 families, primarily women and children, but has had to turn away over 700 families due to lack of space. As Harmony House’s Executive Director, Rodney Dwyer, told a local Missouri newspaper last week, “While there always have been some people being turned away, this is a record high number for us, and that’s part of a statewide problem as well.”

Shelters like Harmony House often provide legal aid, job training, child care, and support groups in addition to housing—but even when they do have space, their services are temporary. When a DV survivor has exhausted her stay with a shelter and paying rent is out of reach, her options are often limited to either going back to an abuser, or homelessness. As NLIHC wrote, “The obvious outcome of this mismatch between [housing] supply and demand is that some people do not have homes at all—they become homeless. The existence of the gap is not a matter of debate.”

Well before the current drop in availability of affordable housing, the relationship between domestic violence and homelessness was clear. Cities have consistently cited domestic violence as a major cause of homelessness over the past several years. Among 29 cities included in the 2011 National Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness Survey, 13 percent of homeless people were domestic violence survivors. This is a decrease from the 39 percent of DV survivors reported in 2007, but as the Hunger and Homelessness Surveys indicate, this drop is at least in part because more people are experiencing homelessness due to increases in unemployment, not necessarily because DV rates have dropped in significant numbers. Homeless women surveyed throughout the country have consistently named domestic violence as the reason they ultimately fled their homes.  

If they are lucky enough to have a  place to live, DV survivors may still face eviction or other penalties for the abuse committed against them. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has protections in place for DV survivors living in public housing, and according to the NHLP, legislators throughout the country have begun working to put more protections in place to shield DV survivors from evictions and other penalties resulting from the violence they suffer.

But such protections can only aid DV survivors who have a place to live to begin with. To address the current gap in affordable housing, there needs to be a national increase in the availability of both short-term shelters as well as long-term housing options.

Domestic violence is not just a problem of the poor. It cuts across economic classes, but the survivors who are economically dependent on their abusers tend to face the greatest challenges in escaping abuse and building safe, healthy lives of their own. It is this subset of survivors for whom sustainable, affordable housing options are most critical.