October 2016 Newsletter

Date: 
10/31/2016 - 12:00pm

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Domestic and sexual violence is a serious problem in the U.S. According to the CDC, on average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the U.S. This amounts to 12 million people in a twelve month period.  Approximately 80% of these victims are women. In studying this problem in 2005, Congress found that women often returned to abusive partners because they could not find long-term housing. Individuals fleeing abuse should not have to choose between homelessness and remaining in a violent relationship. MFHC is committed to protecting the housing rights of victims of domestic violence to help end the abuse. To educate the public about housing rights available to victims and survivors of intimate partner violence, this issue of our newsletter summarizes a 2013 Massachusetts law that affords victims the right to early lease termination and lock changes for their safety.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Massachusetts Early Lease Termination and Lock Change law

In 2013, Massachusetts expanded the housing rights of all victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and stalking by allowing lock changes, early lease terminations and protections against landlord retaliation. We are highlighting information about the 2013 law, but it is important to note that there are other laws that also provide important housing protections to victims.  If you have any questions about the housing rights of victims of domestic and sexual violence, please contact us.

Who is protected by the 2013 law?

Any victim of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and stalking, regardless of sex or gender.  

How is domestic violence defined in the law?

Domestic violence is defined as the occurrence of 1 or more of the following acts between family members or a member of the household:

1.  attempting to cause or causing physical harm;

2.  placing another in fear of imminent serious physical harm;

3.  causing another to engage in involuntarily in sexual relations by force, threat or duress.

To qualify for a lock change or early lease termination, does a victim have to prove that he or she is a victim of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and stalking?

Yes, if a landlord requests it. Proof can consist of  one  of the following: (1) a protection order; (2) a record from a court or law enforcement of an act of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or stalking; or (3) written verification from any other qualified 3rd party to whom the tenant, co-tenant or member of tenant’s household reported the incident(s). This 3rd party verification shall include the name of the organization, agency, client or professional service provider and the date(s) of the incident(s), and name of the perpetrator, if known. Adult victims will be asked to provide a statement, under penalty of perjury, that the incident in the verification is true.  

Who can request a lock change?

If a tenant or co-tenant, or a member of the household reasonably believes there is an imminent threat of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or stalking at the premises, he or she can request a lock change. We recommend putting the request in writing.

What happens next?

A landlord can request, in good faith, proof of an individual’s status a victim, as outlined above. However, if the threat is from a co-tenant or household member, the victim  must provide the landlord with a valid protection order or court record indicating that the co-tenant or household member poses an imminent threat of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or stalking. Once the proper documentation is provided, the landlord must change the locks within 2 business days, or allow the tenant to do so. The landlord can charge the tenant a reasonable fee.

What if the landlord fails to change the locks within 2 business days.

If the landlord doesn’t change the locks or give a tenant permission to do so within 2 business days, the victim can change the locks on her own. If the victim changes the locks, they must be installed in a workmanlike manner with locks of equal or greater quality than the originals. A landlord has the right to replace the lock installed by the tenant and seek reimbursement if the locks were installed improperly or were inferior to the originals. The tenant must make a good faith effort to provide a key to their landlord within 2 business days of the change.

Who can request early lease termination? 

A tenant may terminate a lease upon 30 days written notice to the landlord that a member of the household is a victim of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or stalking. This notice may be given within 3 months of the most recent incident.  A landlord may request proof of status as a victim as outlined above.  The landlord or housing subsidy provider who obtains written proof of a person’s status as a victim must keep such documentation and information confidential. The information cannot be released, unless the victim provides written permission or unless required by court order, government regulation or governmental audit requirements.

What if the violence happened more than 3 months ago?

It is still possible to terminate the lease if the victim is reasonably in fear of imminent serious physical harm. 

What steps do I have to take to terminate my lease before the end of the lease term?  

As noted above, 30 days written notice to the landlord must be provided of the victim’s intent to terminate the lease. Within 3 months of this written notice to the landlord, the victim must move out of the rental unit.  If the victim does not move out within 3 months, the notice will be void.

Does the law protect tenants from retaliation by landlords?

Yes, the law prohibits landlords from refusing to rent to a victim who has terminated a rental agreement as outlined in the 2013 law, and it prohibits landlords from retaliating against a victim who has requested a lock change. Additionally, victims are protected from retaliation for seeking a restraining order under G.L. c. 209A or G.L. c. 258E; reporting an incident of domestic or sexual violence (including stalking) to law enforcement; and reporting a violation of a restraining order under 209A or 258E.

This summary is for informational purposes only. It is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship.  If you have  questions about housing rights for victims of domestic violence, you can call MFHC at 413-539-9796.  

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Q&A with Legal Intern

Rachael Jensen

Rachael Jensen received a B.A. in Communication from the University of Arkansas, and is now applying to law schools. She moved to Western Massachusetts with her fiancé, Paige Hermansen, who is an Assistant Professor of English at Westfield State University, and her beagle, Turnip Jean. Rachael received a Top Student Paper award from the National Communication Association in 2015 for her research in political communication.

Welcome, Rachael. How did you become interested in an internship at MFHC?

Thank you. When I first moved here in September, I was eager to get to know my new community through service. When I met Ashley Grant, the Legal Director, and she told me about the internship, I knew that it was an incredible opportunity. Not only do I get valuable experience while I apply to law schools, but I am actually able to have a positive impact on my community. I am learning so much here, and I come home excited and energized every day.

What is the most unexpected thing you’ve learned here?

How connected housing insecurity is to other forms of insecurity. I was astonished to learn that 38% of all women who experience domestic violence also experience homelessness at some point in their lives, and that 63% of homeless women have experienced intimate partner violence as adults. Homelessness is a real threat for victims of domestic violence, and they are more likely to experience discrimination when they apply for housing.

You work closely with new clients in the intake department. What have you learned from them about housing discrimination?

People who have less money, less education, and less access to resources are already vulnerable, and when they experience housing discrimination, they may not have the tools to advocate for themselves. Not everyone who faces homelessness or eviction has a law degree, or can afford to hire a lawyer. The need is incredible, which is why we stretch our resources as much as we can so that we can be that resource for as many people as possible.

What do you see as MFHC’s role in addressing these issues?

Housing is the institution with the greatest ability to change lives in immediate and demonstrable ways. It is one of our most basic needs, and it is inextricably linked to our sense of happiness and security in the world. Housing is also connected to access to education, employment, healthcare, and social services. By working against discrimination in housing, we can also impact discrimination in virtually every other social institution.

Thank you, Rachael. We are so happy to have you here with us.

 

Thank you. It’s a great opportunity, and I’m thrilled to be here.