Pennsylvania Considers Bill That Would Help Protect Domestic Violence Survivors From Eviction (UPDATED)

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Analysis Law and Policy

Pennsylvania Considers Bill That Would Help Protect Domestic Violence Survivors From Eviction (UPDATED)

Annamarya Scaccia

On Monday, the Pennsylvania General Assembly considered for a second time HB 1796, the first statewide bill in the nation seeking to protect all victims of crime or abuse from experiencing similar maltreatment.

Update, January 14, 3:10 p.m. ET: HB 1796 passed the Pennsylvania house Tuesday. It will now be considered in the state senate.

When the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed its federal lawsuit in April 2013 on behalf of Lakisha Briggs, a domestic violence survivor evicted from her Pennsylvania home due to a local nuisance ordinance, it brought to light an issue harming many survivors of intimate partner violence: that these property ordinances, meant to cull blight and disruptive behaviors in communities, often displace innocent victims of crime.

On Monday, the Pennsylvania General Assembly considered for a second time HB 1796, the first statewide bill in the nation seeking to protect all victims of crime or abuse from experiencing similar maltreatment. Introduced in October, the bill would prohibit Commonwealth municipalities from penalizing a resident, tenant, or landlord for requesting police or emergency assistance if such contact was made “upon the reasonable belief” that assistance was needed to prevent “the perpetration or escalation of … the abuse, crime or emergency … or if the intervention or emergency assistance was actually needed in response to the abuse, crime or emergency.”

In other words, under HB 1796, districts could not use police calls made to a property due to domestic violence incidents as a reason to evict or threaten eviction, revoke or threaten to revoke a rental license, or impose fines in pursuant to a nuisance property ordinance. And if a municipality does unlawfully enforce the ordinance, the victim has the right to recoup fees and damages in civil court if they’re “displaced by virtue of the fact that they’re a victim,” state Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery County), the lawmaker and former prosecutor behind the bill, told Rewire.

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“[HB 1796] is not window dressing. This is the real deal. Any victim who a municipality tries to have evicted will have plenty of rights,” Rep. Stephens said.

Stephens announced his intentions to introduce HB 1796 in April after the ACLU lawsuit against Norristown’s discretionary Rental License Ordinance went public. “The goal is for this law is to have some teeth,” he said.

While HB 1796 would protect all victims of crime and abuse, it would have a profound impact on domestic violence survivors, like Briggs, who are disproportionately affected by property nuisance or disorderly conduct ordinances. As Rewire originally reported in June, Briggs, a resident of Norristown and mother of two, was evicted from her home in 2012, to the hesitation of her landlord, under Montgomery County borough’s original ordinance, which stated if police are called to a property three times in four months, Norristown had the right to revoke a landlord’s rental permit and provoke a tenant’s eviction. Norristown’s ordinance is just one of 19 known nuisance property ordinances in Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV), and of 59 other known ordinances throughout the country.

The last call to law enforcement, which prompted Briggs’ eviction, occurred on June 23, 2012, when a brutal attack on Briggs’ life was made by her ex-boyfriend, who abused her on reported occasions.

In late 2012, the ACLU was able to successfully halt Briggs’ eviction and persuade Norristown to annul its discretionary ordinance. But, that very same day, the borough passed a similar ordinance that instead imposed escalating mandatory fines on landlords for police calls responding to “disorderly behavior” at their properties.

That’s where the ACLU’s federal lawsuit comes in. Currently in the discovery phase, ACLU’s lawsuit contends that, much like the old one, the newest version of Norristown’s ordinance violates, among other laws, a tenant’s First Amendment right to petition the government, which the Supreme Court has decided includes calling the police. (A court-ordered settlement conference is scheduled for February 10, according to ACLU Staff Attorney Sara Rose, who is working on the Briggs case.) By imposing fines on the landlord until the landlord removes the cause of the “disorderly behavior,” Norristown is preventing domestic violence victims from calling police for help for fear that they will be evicted and subsequently become homeless.

As Rewire initially cited in June, a 2012 study analyzing a nuisance ordinance in Milwaukee found that 39 of 71 evictions or threats of evictions involved incidents of domestic violence toward women, many of whom weren’t living with their abuser. This statistic is compounded by the fact that domestic violence is cited as the primary reason for homelessness for 20 percent of homeless women, with reports showing women of color like Briggs—who make up a higher percentage of domestic violence victims—face higher eviction rates, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness.

“It’s an issue that’s really coming to the forefront of public awareness and understanding,” Laurie Baughman, senior attorney at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told Rewire.

The statewide coalition, which has worked to tackle these ordinances since 2006 by developing toolkits for attorneys and advocacy groups, worked with Rep. Stephens and the ACLU-PA and other municipal associations to craft HB 1796’s original and amended language. Baughman said PCADV is happy the bill “is in the works because it’s raising the bar and highlight this horrible issue.”

She continued: “[Pennsylvania] is a model in a bad way because of Norristown and is now hopefully going to be a model of how the state came together with Representative Stephens’ leadership, recognized an ill, and took action to fix it.”

The ACLU lawsuit also exposed how nuisance property ordinances can violate the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) if they result in an eviction of a survivor in public housing or using a Housing Choice voucher (Section 8), to offset rental costs, like Briggs. VAWA provides strong protections for domestic violence survivors, prohibiting the denial or termination of public housing or assistance on the basis of their status as a “victim of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault or stalking”—nor can criminal activity directly stemming from such violence be used to deny or terminate housing or benefits for a tenant that’s victimized. (In July, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania wrote a letter to the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development requesting the agencies educate local communities on VAWA’s protections for tenants in relation to property ordinances.)

Rep. Stephens told Rewire that HB 1796 “provides protections for everyone regardless if they are living in subsidized housing or not. For those who are living in subsidized housing, it provides another layer of rights and protections to ensure they are not wrongfully displaced.”

Currently, HB 1796 has 29 bipartisan co-sponsors from “rural, suburban and urban districts across the Commonwealth,” Stephens said. He hopes that if his bill passes third consideration, which is possible this week, it will be on its way to the Pennsylvania Senate at the end of next week.