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Guest Column: Fair housing protects battered women from homelessness

April 11, 2012

By Jennifer Gelman

It was a classic case of blaming the victim:

Tanica Lewis did all she could to protect herself and her children from an abusive ex-boyfriend.

She got an order of protection (a court order, signed by a judge, prohibiting the abuser from contact with her), and she informed her landlord. When Tanica’s ex-boyfriend violated the order and broke into her apartment, she called the police and had him arrested.

Still, Tanica’s landlord responded to the break-in by evicting her for failure to supervise a “guest.” Already victimized once, Tanica Lewis, now driven out of her home, took her children to a shelter.

This story happened in Michigan, but it resonated throughout the nation.

The Tanica Lewis story became a vivid dramatization of the connection between domestic violence and homelessness. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Ms. Lewis challenged the eviction as unlawful discrimination based on sex under the Fair Housing Act. She prevailed.

In 2010, because of stories like Tanica’s, Illinois legislators amended Illinois housing discrimination laws to prohibit discrimination because of order of protection status. Now, a housing provider (a landlord, for example) cannot deny housing to a person because she has an order of protection. The housing provider may not refuse admission to housing, evict her or otherwise treat her unfavorably because of her status as a protected party under an Order of Protection.

All housing laws — including those that prohibit discrimination — strive to balance the rights of property owners with those of people who need a place to live. In Illinois, as in Michigan, landlords (understandably protective of their property and the safety of other tenants) may tend to disfavor domestic violence victims, imagining them responsible for (or complicit in) the violent acts of their abusers.

These attitudes make it hard for domestic violence victims to find and keep housing, and confound their efforts to escape abusive partners.

Domestic violence victims (usually women, often with children and frequently lacking financial resources) face obstacles to housing similar to those faced by racial, ethnic and religious minorities for whose protection the federal Fair Housing Act (a centerpiece of civil rights legislation) was originally passed in 1968.

In April of 1968, barely a week after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congress responded to the problem of segregated living patterns by passing the Fair Housing Act, prohibiting discrimination in housing transactions on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin.

In 1974, Congress added discrimination based on sex to the law’s prohibitions. In 1988, the Fair Housing Act extended protection to people with disabilities and families with minor children.

Illinois fair housing laws follow the federal law but add more protected classes, such as ancestry, age, marital status, military status, unfavorable discharge from the military, sexual orientation, and now, as of 2010, Order of Protection status.

The nation has celebrated April as Fair Housing Month since the 1968 enactment of the Fair Housing Act. Given the new protection for women with an order of protection, Illinois fair housing laws, domestic violence victims and their advocates have additional cause for celebration in the month of April.

However, fair housing laws cannot end wrongful discrimination without the participation of our communities. Housing providers must know their obligations under the law, and victims of unlawful housing discrimination must know their rights and how to assert them.

If you have encountered housing discrimination, you do not need to hire an attorney to file a complaint. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers a free complaint process to resolve allegations of illegal discrimination. HUD investigates, mediates and, when necessary, litigates discrimination cases at no charge to the complaining party.

A judge can order the housing provider to pay for damages that resulted from discriminatory conduct. In some cases, a judge may order a housing provider to make the housing available to a person who was denied housing unlawfully. To file a complaint, contact HUD (1-800-669-9777), or file a complaint online at www.hud.gov) or the Illinois Department of Human Rights (1-800-662-3942) within one year of the discriminatory incident. Low-income residents of northern and central Illinois may also contact Prairie State Legal Services for free legal advice on housing matters, including housing discrimination and fair housing remedies.

Jennifer Gelman is an attorney at Prairie State Legal Services who is working on a legal education and outreach project concerned with housing discrimination. This article was written under a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and is dedicated to the public. The author is solely responsible for the accuracy of the statements and interpretations in this publication. Such interpretations do not necessarily reflect the view of the federal government.

From the April 11-17, 2012, issue

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