Last week, the Supreme Court handed down a number of critical decisions that impacted millions of Americans. While the nation is still buzzing about their decisions on same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act, another ruling that plays a major role in the fight against housing discrimination received less attention. In Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. the Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., the Supreme Court confirmed that housing policies that have a “disparate impact” based on race, gender, religion, national origin, disability or family status are prohibited under the Fair Housing Act. This applies to policies that may not explicitly intend to discriminate against certain groups but still create a pattern of discrimination. The disparate impact standard of the Fair Housing Act has been a critical tool in dismantling institutional racial discrimination in housing and lending, and although less well known, it has been a valuable asset for survivors of domestic violence.
The Fair Housing Act was first used to prevent domestic violence housing discrimination in the case of Alvera v. the CBM Group, Inc. After Tiffani Alvera was attacked by her husband and hospitalized, she gave a copy of her protection order to the landlord to have her husband evicted from their shared residence. The landlord responded by ordering both her and her husband to vacate the property within 24 hours. She was told that a member of her household “inflicted personal injury upon the landlord or other tenants,” which was grounds to terminate her lease. The fact that Alvera herself was the victim of this violence did not deter her landlord from ordering her out. When she filed a complaint under the Fair Housing Act, the court agreed that although the policy was not directly intended to discriminate against domestic violence victims, it still had a disparate impact and amounted to gender discrimination.
There are many ways landlords can discriminate against tenants currently experiencing or with a history of domestic violence. They may refuse to rent to applicants with a history of DV. For current tenants, they may fail to renew their lease, evict them or raise their rent as punishment for their abusers’ actions. Some localities also have nuisance ordinances which heavily fine or punish landlords who have the police called to their buildings too many times. This puts pressure on landlords to discourage tenants from seeking help or to evict them if they call the police multiple times. In one case, Lakisha Briggs was warned, after calling the police for violence committed by her ex-boyfriend, that she would be evicted from her apartment if she kept calling. She endured two more brutal attacks from her ex-boyfriend out of too much fear to report it, but was evicted anyway when other residents called the police. Although this case was settled in court and the ordinance repealed, these types of policies are still popular across the country. One study of Milwaukee found that in a single year, 157 nuisance citations were given to landlords for domestic violence incidents, disproportionately directed at women from low-income, mostly black neighborhoods. In the majority of these cases the landlord responded with immediate eviction.
Currently, thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have statutes protecting against some form of domestic violence housing discrimination. However, many of these statutes are narrow and do not cover the full range of possible discrimination, leaving many victims unprotected by state policies. Fortunately, the Supreme Court decision ensures the Fair Housing Act can continue to offer relief for anyone affected by discriminatory housing policies and prevent domestic violence victims from having to make the impossible choice between keeping their housing and protecting their safety.