Abused Women: Your Fair Housing Rights
- Is a landlord refusing to rent to you or threatening eviction?
- Who is protected?
- Examples of discrimination.
- What can I do if I'm a victim?
- What if I'm afraid to complain?
WARNING: This page explains, in simple terms, a complex, emerging area of the law. Talk to a lawyer, or contact Pine Tree Legal Assistance, right away, before taking any action, if you think you have been discriminated against for being the victim of abuse.
Are you facing eviction, or have you been denied rental housing, because you are being abused?
Sometimes landlords react to domestic violence and sexual assault by taking action against the victim. Sex discrimination in housing is illegal. Most victims of domestic violence are women. So if your landlord takes action against you because of domestic violence, this may also be illegal discrimination.
Here we explain your rights and choices if, after learning that you are being abused, your landlord:
- evicts you,
- denies you a housing benefit, or
- refuses to rent to you.
When we say "landlord," this includes:
- public housing authorities
- property management companies, and
- private landlords.
Who is protected? Some basic rules
Landlords must treat male and female tenants equally. So, for example, if your landlord does not usually evict tenants who are victims of violent crimes but evicts women who are abused by their spouses, this could be illegal sex discrimination. This would also be a violation of your landlord's written policy against discrimination, if he has one. Housing authorities, for example, have these policies.
This means that you may have several choices for taking action:
- filing an internal complaint with a housing authority,
- making an administrative claim with a federal or state agency, or
- bringing a lawsuit in court
Fair Housing laws protect people living in:
- public housing
- trailer parks
- homeless shelters
A few homes are exempt from fair housing laws.
How can I tell if my landlord has done something illegal?
To give you an idea, here are some more examples:
- Your abusive partner lives with you. Your landlord evicts you or takes away your housing voucher because of what the abuser did , but does nothing to the abuser.
- Your landlord has different rules for men and women, where a woman has been in an abusive relationship or has been sexually assaulted.
- Your landlord learns that you are in an abusive relationship. He puts down women who are abused, for that reason.
- A landlord refuses to rent to you because he learned from a prior landlord, or in the newspaper, that you had filed for a protection from abuse order against an abuser.
- A landlord harasses you, sexually assaults you, or demands sexual relations for rent.
In every case, you must show that your landlord discriminated against you because of your sex. If your landlord has other legal reasons for denying you housing, his actions may be allowed.
What can I do if I think a landlord has discriminated against me?
Here are three possible steps you can take. You can do them in any order.
- File a complaint with the federal agency that enforces discrimination laws.
To report discrimination, contact:
HUD Office of Fair Housing
Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr. Federal Bldg.
10 Causeway Street, Room 321
Boston, MA 02222-1092
Phone: 1-800-827-5005 or (617) 994-8300
TTY (617) 565-5453
Time limit: 1 year from the date of the landlord's illegal action.
If you win your case at this level but the landlord still won't comply, a free lawyer may take your case to court.
For more about how this agency handles claims, go to Fair Housing: Your Right to Rent or Own a Home.
- Make a complaint under your landlord's grievance procedure.
This might be the quickest and easiest way to resolve the problem. If you live in Public Housing or Rural Housing (Farmers Home), there should be a grievance procedure for sex discrimination. Other large housing providers may have similar formal complaint procedures.
First, find out whether such a procedure exists.
Second, ask for a written copy of the procedures and read them. Make sure you understand them.
Third, follow the procedures. Be sure to put everything in writing and keep a copy.
- File a lawsuit in state or federal court.
If you go to court with your complaint, you must do this within 2 years of the landlord's illegal action. This is difficult, and you would probably need a lawyer to represent you. Lawsuits are expensive and can take years. A lawyer may be willing to take your case on the hope of getting her fees paid by the other side if she wins. But this is not common unless you go through HUD first.
What if I am afraid to file a formal complaint?
We understand that first you want to protect yourself, and your children, if you have any living with you. You may not want to file a complaint because you are afraid that it will put you in more danger. Here are some more resources that may be able to help you:
A Domestic Violence Project or Sexual Assault Center in your area. Get the local domestic violence hotline number online, from your telephone book, police, sheriff or 911 emergency number.
Maine's statewide sexual assault hotline is 1-800-871-7741 TTY 1-888-458-5599
These groups help women in crisis by
- helping you to sort out your choices
- giving you useful information and referrals
They may be able to help you figure out a way to deal with your housing problem without putting yourself in more danger.
For more help and information, contact your local Pine Tree Legal office.
Thanks to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, Domestic Violence Project. This information is based on their research and prior publication.