“Housing vouchers are like gold,” says Staff Attorney Joey Dobson. “There’s nothing more valuable to a low-income tenant. The waiting list is years long.”
Gigi and her husband had separated because of his abuse. Gigi came home from work one day and found that her husband had packed up all of her belongings and given notice to her landlord. He forced her to go with him to his apartment and tracked all of her movements through her phone. He controlled the mail so she couldn’t receive or reply to notices.
When Gigi finally escaped months later, she went to the housing authority to see about her housing options. They said it was too late; her voucher had been terminated. She came to Legal Aid for help.
“It wasn’t difficult to see the connection between the domestic violence and the loss of her housing voucher,” says Staff Attorney Dorinda Wider.
In 2017, Housing & Urban Development (HUD) issued new guidance to public housing authorities regarding the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The new VAWA guidance directs housing providers to think broadly about the effects of domestic violence, taking into account emotional manipulation, threats and economic consequences.
Wider asked the housing authority to reinstate Gigi’s voucher pursuant to VAWA. She directed their attention to the law and to Gigi’s documented history of domestic violence victimization and police records of abuse. The housing authority agreed in settlement to give Gigi a voucher immediately, and she is now securely housed in a new location. Legal Aid is helping with her divorce case.
In a similar case, Janet lost her housing voucher after police entered with smoke and flash grenades searching for drugs. Although the warrant was actually for Janet’s abusive boyfriend, the housing authority started a process to terminate Janet’s voucher.
“We jumped in to defend her,” says Staff Attorney Joey Dobson. “We felt very strongly that Janet had protections under VAWA, that the criminal activity was done by her abuser, and that she should not lose that voucher for something that was no fault of her own.”
Janet had plenty of evidence of domestic violence. Her boyfriend served time for a number of charges, including felony domestic assault, but the housing authority’s policy said that a voucher holder may be required to obtain an Order for Protection (OFP) to keep their abuser from coming around.
Janet had obtained an OFP before, but it didn’t help because the police wouldn’t fully enforce it. To file for another one would just make her abuser more angry and more dangerous. He had numerous connections in and out of prison, and there were many ways to retaliate against Janet and her children without violating the OFP.
“An OFP should not be a condition for someone to save their housing,” says Staff Attorney Georgina Santos, Dobson’s co-counsel in Janet’s case. “Dorinda has pointed out numerous times over the years to the housing authority that it is actually illegal to require a VAWA-protected individual to take affirmative action.”
The new VAWA guidelines supported Janet’s position, and Legal Aid pushed back hard against the suggestion that she file for another OFP. In a demand letter, Dobson and Santos let the housing authority know that Janet was prepared to enforce her rights by all means necessary. Eventually, the housing authority agreed.
Housing Rights for Survivors of Domestic Abuse
Both Gigi and Janet faced loss of long-term housing because of the actions of violent partners. Both are protected under the law from that loss, and Legal Aid defended their right to retain their housing vouchers. Vigorous representation in these two cases put local housing authorities on notice that HUD’s understanding of VAWA is a holistic one, with an eye on the many ways domestic violence can destabilize a household. Legal Aid is committed to protecting the housing rights of people who suffer from domestic violence.