Victims and landlords negotiated new domestic violence law protecting renters

By Barbara Pash

Starting today, domestic violence and sexual assault victims who rent their homes are better protected from future attacks and eviction, thanks to a new law that came out of intense negotiations between representatives of victims and landlords.

The law ensures three basic protections for victims who rent:

* They can break their lease — no matter how long it is — without penalty if they have a protective order and give the landlord 30 days notice. Tenants will only be responsible for a month’s rent and repairs to damages, which can be deducted from security deposits.

* They can change their locks for safety reasons. The landlord must respond within a specified time frame, and the tenant pays for the work.

* Landlords cannot evict tenants based on being victims of domestic violence/sexual abuse, or “victim defense” in the jargon.

The bill is being hailed by advocates for domestic violence victims as groundbreaking, but it came out of intense negotiations. Del. Cheryl Glenn, the lead sponsor of the legislation in the House of Delegates, characterized the negotiations over the terms of the bill between lobbyists for landlords and victims’ advocates as “very difficult, very emotional.”

“Nobody got everything they wanted,” Glenn said.

Domestic violence is the second leading cause of family homelessness both nationally and in Maryland, said Michele Gilman, a University of Baltimore School of Law professor and director of the Civil Advocacy Clinic. Twenty-seven states have laws similar to the one that went into effect Oct. 1 in Maryland.

Domestic violence among tenants is a also a serious problem for landlords, said Katherine Howard. She is the legislative committee chair for the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, a trade group which representing landlords throughout the state except in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Domestic violence could result in physical damage to the property. It may disturb neighbors in the building and the apartment complex as a whole. The police may be called.

Everyone agreed that victims needed assistance, but they debated the threshold for proving domestic violence. Some coalition members pushed for physical evidence of domestic violence, such as hospital records or police reports, to suffice.

Howard said that more solid legal documents — such as protective orders — are needed because landlords have contractual obligations to their tenants.

“Legal documents protect landlords from civil suits from people with whom they have a contractual obligation,” she said.

Landlords also fought the victim defense, which requires courts to presume that if there is a protective or peace order, the tenant is the victim and is allowed to remain in the apartment, said Antonia Fasanelli. Executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a free legal services organization, Fasanelli said that  Maryland has some of the most lenient rules for evicting tenants in the country.

Fasanelli was involved in the passage of a similar law in Washington, D.C.

“There was more support on the D.C. City Council for victims of domestic violence than among legislators in Maryland,” she said.  “We heard the questions in the hearing [on the bill]. There were concerns people would take advantage of it.”

One component — a discrimination element tied to the Fair Housing Act– could not be negotiated to please all parties, and did not make it into the final legislation.

The General Assembly rarely passes a controversial bill like this one the first year it is offered. But the groundwork began in August 2009 when a coalition of domestic violence and housing advocacy groups began hammering out the legislation in preparation for the 2010 General Assembly.

“The law is a good compromise measure that is good business for landlords as well as their residents,” said Howard. “It is a landmark decision in the sense that for the first time in Maryland there is a real outline for people to follow, both on the landlord side and the victim side.”

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