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What can I do if my tenant is a victim of domestic violence?

Domestic violence can take several different forms and is often under the radar of outside observers. Hearing yelling or seeing bruises might alert a friend or neighbor that abuse is happening. But other types of abuse, including coercion, intimidation, emotional abuse, and financial abuse often go unnoticed.

It is possible to see signs and suspect abuse when something harmless is happening. It is also possible to not see anything of concern and be tipped off by someone else about an abusive relationship. What is important in either scenario is to hold off on making a decision until you get an understanding of what is going on.

Tenants who are victims of domestic violence have certain legal protections, which vary based on state law. In certain situations, you may be obligated to let them out of their lease early. However, even when it is not required, it may be in everyone's best interest to accommodate such a request. You may verify their status by asking for proof of:

  • A restraining order against the alleged abuser.
  • Relevant criminal charges against the alleged abuser where the victim is the tenant or any other household member(s).
  • A letter from a qualified third party, such as a health care provider, counselor, law enforcement officer, social worker, or attorney.
  • A condition of release stating that the alleged abuser may not come into contact with the victim due to a relevant offense, such as domestic abuse or stalking.

If you have reason to believe a tenant or a visitor is committing acts of domestic violence on your property, you may want to contact law enforcement. If the alleged victim is your tenant, you may want to provide them with information about the National Domestic Violence Hotline if it is safe to do so. You could also conspicuously post the hotline number in common areas, such as the laundry room, a bulletin board, or the property manager's door.

Remember, it is common for domestic violence victims to deny their abuse, provide cover stories to explain bruises, or make excuses for the abuser. Although you cannot force the truth out of anyone, you can provide them with resources and do everything you can to maintain a safe environment for your tenants, their guests, and visitors.

Do I have a duty to report domestic violence?

No, landlords are not mandatory reporters of suspected domestic violence.

However, landlords may be liable for acts of violence that occur on their property, including domestic abuse. This may include attacks on other tenants, visitors, or innocent bystanders. So, while you are not required to report suspected domestic abuse, failing to act when a reasonable person should have known a tenant or visitor was in danger of being abused could result in legal trouble.

If you suspect domestic abuse on your property, you may want to ask a lawyer about your rights and responsibilities.

If a tenant provides written proof that they are the victim of domestic violence, you might consider some of the following actions:

  • Evicting the abuser from the property. If the abuser is a tenant, you are not required to offer them a chance to fix the cause of the eviction.
  • Obtaining a restraining order to keep the abuser from returning to the property.
  • Changing the locks or allowing your tenant to do so.
  • Ending the lease or allowing the victim to end their portion of the lease early.
  • Maintaining your tenant's confidentiality regarding their status as a domestic abuse victim.

Depending on state law, you may be able to evict the victim as well as the abuser, when this is required to keep other tenants safe. Often victims leave with their abuser when the abuser is evicted. In California, for instance, you may not evict a victim of domestic violence, unless they continue to grant the abuser access to the property and the presence of the abuser poses a threat to other tenants or disrupts their right to enjoy the property.

What do I need to know about VAWA?

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) lays out certain protections for victims of domestic abuse who are in federally subsidized, multi-family rental housing. Keep in mind that there is some overlap with other state and federal housing laws that may provide similar protections for non-subsidized rentals as well.

Those protected under VAWA include individuals subjected to domestic violence by an intimate partner with a criminal conviction for the offense, the victim of any nonconsensual sexual act or incidence of dating violence, the victim of stalking, and any immediate family or members of the household.

As a landlord, under VAWA, you may not:

  • Refuse to rent to any individual based on their status as a domestic abuse survivor. This is also protected under the federal Fair Housing Act.
  • Evict a protected tenant because of threats or actual acts of violence committed against them, unless you can prove an actual or imminent threat to other tenants or guests if they were to remain.
  • Give special preference to a protected tenant, such as allowing excessive noise or property damage, if it violates the lease agreement.

Additionally, landlords must do the following in accordance with VAWA's housing protections:

  • If the survivor wants to stay on the lease after the abuser is evicted, you must provide the process of bifurcation. This means, essentially, amending a lease to remove the abuser's name.
  • If the abuser was the one who qualified for federal assistance, you must provide the victim with an opportunity to qualify for assistance or find other housing. In these situations, a housing authority may choose to grant the victim housing assistance.

As a landlord, you may be privy to many of the personal details, good and bad, of your tenants' daily lives. It is important to make sure you are prepared to help tenants who may be the victims of domestic abuse, while also protecting your other tenants, and your own interests.

Can a landlord evict a tenant they suspect is abusing another tenant?

The short answer is yes, but the process may be complicated and even dangerous. Sometimes, simply posting an Eviction Notice on the door may compel an abuser to leave without having to follow through with the eviction process. However, it is important to gather information first so you can make rational, level-headed decisions. These are sensitive situations, and taking the wrong course of action could lead to worse consequences than legal liability for the victim of the abuse, or other tenants.

If you do have reliable information about abuse, including evidence, then you may want to contact law enforcement or evict the abuser if they are a tenant. If the victim lives with the abuser and is not on the lease, you can allow the victim to stay in the unit through the bifurcation process outlined in the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This applies to all victims of domestic abuse, regardless of gender.

To learn more about the legal issues around eviction and domestic abuse, contact a Rocket Lawyer On Call® attorney for affordable legal advice.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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