A New Escape Route for Victims of Domestic Violence

Photo: Thinkstock.
Photo: Thinkstock.

Tim Wilson’s new girlfriend was a nightmare. The 40-year-old software manager at an Irvine-based bank recalls that she would kick him out of their apartment in the middle of the night, screaming and swearing. If Wilson tried to leave, she would stalk him. In the Huntington Beach apartment they shared, she’d push him into a room, verbally harass him and wouldn’t let him get any sleep.

“It was the put-downs, constant negativity, and name-calling over time that were the most damaging,” says Wilson. “I couldn’t come home. I didn’t have a safe place to go and have some peace.” But Wilson was on a year lease for a $1,535-a-month apartment, and the father of three would be on the hook if he broke it—something he couldn’t afford. Finally after calling the emergency hotline, domestic violence advocates offered him a remedy—a 2014 law that helped him break his lease early and move, within a few days, without financial penalty.

Recently, the California legislature and Governor Brown made that law permanent. The Safe Housing for Domestic Violence Survivors law—which also applies to victims of stalking, human trafficking, sexual assault, and elder abuse—eliminates significant bureaucratic hurdles. If a tenant is in an unsafe living environment, they are able to break the lease with a statement from a counselor or caseworker (previously, the survivor could only request termination of a lease if they filed a police report or obtained a restraining order). On top of that, the new law makes it easier to leave by decreasing the survivor’s remaining rent obligation from 30 days in the current law, to 14 days.

“Every person who has ever had to move knows that it’s an expensive proposition and a lack of resources is a big obstacle for domestic violence victims often because the abuser controls the finances,” says Krista Niemczyk, the Public Policy Manager at the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence (CPEDV), which fought hard for the law’s passage. When survivors flee their home, she says, they may go to emergency shelter if they can’t find affordable housing. They may couch surf with friends and family, but often end up homeless.

“This law allows them to leave quickly and equips them with the money to find housing that’s safe,” Niemczyk says.

The non-profit group, domesticviolence.org, defines, domestic violence as “a pattern of abusive behaviors through the use of power and control tactics used by one person over another in an intimate relationship.” Such abusive behaviors can include pushing, shoving, slapping, throwing objects, being called names, and threatening violence.

Domestic violence is a pervasive problem. About 1 in 4 women (24 percent) and 1 in 7 men (14 percent) have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime. About 33 percent of California women—about 4.5 million—have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner at some point.

The health consequences of such abuse are also well documented. Women who have experienced domestic violence are 80 percent more likely to have a stroke, 70 percent more likely to have heart disease, 60 percent more likely to have asthma and 70 percent more likely to drink heavily than women who have not experienced intimate partner violence, a report says. 

That pain and suffering is what Sarah Behmerwohld, Legal Advocacy Program Supervisor at Human Options, sees every day. When Behmerwohld’s clients walk in the door of the Orange County domestic violence program, her aim is to break that cycle and help them find safety.

She says the lease relief law is a very good vehicle for that.

“We educate them that they can work with their legal advocate and go step by step, whether it’s into transitional housing, moving neighborhoods or crossing state lines or international lines,” she says. “A lot of people choose to relocate because the places that they frequented in the city they were coming from may not feel safe for them any more.”

Despite dangerous living environments, some clients are ambivalent about moving out. In that case, Human Options staff counselors just get them prepared for the moment when they are ready. They ask them if their kids know how to dial 911, if they have a packed bag with any essential documentation, such as birth certificates. They tell them to prepare by leaving their purse and keys by the front door so they can easily access them for a fast exit and to make sure their cellphones are charged.

Assemblymember David Chiu, the law’s sponsor, says he’s very happy that it could be used as an incentive for domestic violence survivors to make the move to get out. “Residential leases should not impede a survivor’s ability to flee a dangerous or potentially fatal situation,” he says in a statement. “This law is good for survivors, for their neighbors, and for their landlords.”

When Niemczyk’s testified to legislative leaders this summer, she used two examples of the lease law’s success. One was Miguela, who was being stalked by her ex-boyfriend who would send her notes documenting her daily activities as he watched from his car outside her home. The advocate at Human Options drafted a letter on her behalf to the apartment manager and was able to break her lease. Another woman, Kathy, was strangled and hit by her abuser, who repeatedly threatened her life. She called the police and he was put on probation and moved out of state, though he eventually returned and resumed the harassment because he knew where Kathy lived. She contacted an advocate who was able to serve a document to the landlord to terminate her lease early. She relocated to safe housing.

“There are situations where a day or a week can make a huge difference in someone’s life,” says Behmerwohld, the legal advocate, adding that now that the law is firmly on the books, there will be more success stories to tell.


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