A 2007 Minnesota law allowed domestic violence victims to break a housing lease, but they had to jump through so many hoops it was rarely used.
A package of laws taking effect Friday will vastly expand housing protections offered to victims of domestic violence and those who face sexual violence or stalking. Abuse victims will no longer need a court order to be eligible to get out of a lease early and won't need to pay an extra month's rent.
Advocates say the new laws will save lives, freeing abuse victims from homes where their abusers can find them. At least 25 women, six friends or family members and seven men died in domestic violence incidents in Minnesota last year, according to the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.
Housing advocates and landlords groups - typically at odds at the Capitol - came together on this issue, making it easy for lawmakers to make the change.
Hurdles too high
The 2007 law's demands for a court order and a month's rent to break a lease simply didn't work. Even if some victims could scrape together the money to pay an extra month of rent, they often didn't have the resources to pay a deposit and first month of rent at a new residence where they felt safer.
"The people of limited means who we help find it very difficult to escape a housing situation and get to safety," said Drew Schaffer, who runs the housing unit at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid in Minneapolis.
Schaffer said he could count on one hand the number of his clients who faced domestic abuse that had been able to legally break their lease. "It puts a person in the position to have to make a choice between honoring a lease and breaking a lease to be safe."
Under the new laws, domestic abuse victims without a court order will be able to use a police report or other form filed by a domestic abuse or sexual assault counselor or a medical professional as proof they need to leave. They'll send their landlord a letter, often prepared by a counselor or advocate, outlining their situation and citing their legal right to break the lease when their safety is threatened.
The old process also held hidden costs, such as court fees and childcare, said Erica Staab, executive director of the Rice County Hope Center, which counsels victims of domestic violence.
"Often they're not making thousands of dollars every month, so they're really looking at budget things," Staab said. "Do I have transportation? Do I have a safe place for my children?"
Staab recalled a Northfield woman who'd moved to escape an abusive partner but who'd found her new residence, vandalized the property and threatened her life. "At that point the landlord wanted to kick her out, and she felt it was an unsafe situation and she wanted to get out of the lease," Staab said.
Having a safe place to go often dictates whether a victim will remain with an abuser or not, Staab added. Many victims of domestic violence find themselves in a precarious financial situation when trying to leave abusers, who often control the couple's finances.
Housing advocates and landlords unite
It's not often that Legal Aid housing advocates and landlords associations find themselves on the same side of an issue at the Legislature. But Legal Services Advocacy Project supervising attorney Ron Elwood enlisted the help of the Minnesota Multi-Family Housing Association, which represents landlords and property managers across the state. Elwood focused on the cost of breaking leases.
Todd Liljenquist, director of government relations for the MHA, said his organization immediately recognized the issue needed to be addressed.
"Not only is it the right thing to do in protecting individuals and making sure that they're in situations where they can't be victimized, but from a pure economic standpoint, it's not to the benefit of a property company to have someone victimized at their property," Liljenquist said.
Management companies that refuse to let victims out of a lease could lose more than the income they'd earn from the unit, said Lisa Moe, chief executive of StuartCo, a property management firm with about 6,000 units in the Minneapolis area.
"If we held that lease intact, we could end up with more damage to the unit, we could end exposed with more damage to other people in that building," Moe said. "And just from a reputation standpoint, you don't want an unsafe environment for anybody, let alone the victim or any neighbors."
That final bill eased advocates' concern about victims needing to pay an extra month's rent to leave legally. Moe and other property managers say they're satisfied the new law's not so broad that tenants will be able to take advantage of it to get out of leases without cause.
Expanding coverage to sexual assault and stalking victims
The laws also expand coverage to victims of criminal sexual assault and stalking, who weren't covered by the old law.
"They're in a situation that they didn't ask to be in already," said Caroline Palmer, law and policy manager at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "You want to be able to make changes in the law that will help them move forward, and I think this makes a huge difference."
Last year, about 2,000 sexual assaults were reported to police in the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, although advocates say many more go unreported.
Hope Center legal advocate Deb Lustig remembers a case in Steele County about a dozen years ago where a woman was sexually assaulted by a group of men in a car. They mentioned her little nephew by name.
"After they gang raped her, they dropped her off at her house," Lustig said. "She had no idea who these people were, how they knew her, how they knew where she lived."
Although she reported the assault to police, the suspects were never found, Lustig said. The woman was unable to move for about three months, during which time she kept her curtains drawn and slept in her closet for fear that the assailants would return.
"It just would have been so much better for her if she had been able to get out of that house," Lustig said.
The new laws prevent landlords from holding victims responsible for damage caused by stalking or domestic or sexual assault. It also allows assault and stalking victims to get an abuser stripped off a lease or title in the case that a victim is unable or is unwilling to find other accommodations.
Although some advocates say the forfeiture of the security deposit still represents a burden for the very poor, they're happy with the changes and expect that they'll be much more accessible to those in need.
"The question I hear so often is 'Why doesn't she just leave?'" said Staab. "These laws will make it easier for the woman to say, 'I can leave.'"