Domestic violence is expensive, particularly for the people experiencing the abuse.
It’s not uncommon for landlords to bill survivors of domestic violence for property damage caused by their abusers, advocates say. Holes punched in walls, broken windows in rental units – costs from this kind of damage can mount until they’re in collections, or turn into evictions.
A new bill discussed by the Seattle City Council on Tuesday aims to protect tenants against such bills. The legislation would bar landlords from charging abused tenants for this kind of damage if they have documented evidence that it resulted from a domestic-violence abuser, even if it didn’t occur during an act of domestic violence.
The connection between domestic violence and housing instability is well-documented. Among people experiencing homelessness who were surveyed in this year’s regional one-night count, 13% of families with children identified domestic violence as the cause of their homelessness. A 2018 study by the Seattle Women’s Commission and the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project also found that domestic violence was cited by several women facing eviction in court records.
The legislation, sponsored by Councilmember Lisa Herbold, stems from that latter study, which included a survey in which most respondents who were evicted reported becoming homeless. After their evictions, nearly 90 percent reported living with friends or family, in shelters or transitional housing, or without other forms of shelter.
Abusers sometimes deliberately damage property to exert control over their victims, said Merril Cousin, executive director of King County’s Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence. While state law allows survivors to break a lease if necessary, people experiencing domestic violence often lose their security deposits, or get stuck with enormous bills, when they do.
“All of those things can be part of a cascading effect,” that then can make them subject to eviction or hurt their credit, Cousin said.
Herbold’s bill would prevent landlords from charging tenants who experience abuse – or deducting the money from their security deposits – so long as a qualified third party files a written report describing the damage and the domestic violence, and that the tenant named the perpetrator to the third party. The list of qualified third parties includes law enforcement as well as counselors and social service caseworkers.
One thing the bill does not include, however, is a proposal from landlords to create a city-financed fund to reimburse them.
“Under our proposal, the landlord could recover up to $5,000 in damages, could allow survivors to keep their entire security deposit and allow them to move forward in a safe way without any kind of burden attached to their prior housing situation,” said Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association.
During Tuesday’s committee hearing on the bill, one public commenter who identified herself as a “small mom-and-pop landlord” criticized the current legislation as a “blank check that the landlord has to pay.”
Herbold said she didn’t pursue a landlord-mitigation fund because “it would have to be limited to low-income individuals only.”
“We are looking to see if this bill can create a path that facilitates the ability of a landlord to pursue damages against the perpetrator,” Herbold said by email.
The bill is scheduled for another hearing in September.
Correction: An earlier version of this story and its headline said the bill would apply to property damage that occurred during an act of domestic violence. It applies to damage caused by the abuser regardless of whether it occurred during an act of domestic abuse.