How to Help Support Tenants Who Are Victims of Domestic Violence

Landlord tenant law book on the lawyer table.

Each year, approximately 10 million people in the U.S. suffer from domestic violence. According to statistics from the Center for Disease Control, this amounts to nearly 20 people per minute being physically abused by an intimate partner. When you consider that around 37% of households are renters, domestic abuse at one of your properties could be a possibility at some point. For this reason, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with your responsibilities as a landlord in domestic violence situations. Please note that this is for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

What is Domestic Violence?

Before taking any action with your tenants, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what domestic violence is. The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines domestic violence (also called domestic abuse, relationship abuse, or intimate partner violence) as a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power or control over another partner in an intimate relationship.

These behaviors include physical harm, scare tactics, coercion, or threatening the other partner. It also includes stopping the partner from doing what they’d like or forcing them to behave in ways they don’t want to behave. Domestic violence often includes physical and/or sexual violence but emotional abuse, threats, intimidation, and economic deprivation are also very common. Many types of domestic abuse can be occurring at the same time or at different points in the relationship. Keep in mind, also, that both men and women can be abusers or victims—be careful not to dismiss someone because they don’t fit an expected role.

The Role of Landlords in the Violence Against Women Act

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) enacted in 2006, is a federal law that protects individuals who are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. As part of the act, victims are also protected from discrimination in accessing and maintaining federally assisted housing due to violence committed against them. Federally assisted housing includes public housing projects, those who have a Section 8 voucher, or rental units that receive federal housing assistance. VAWA doesn’t include private, market-rate housing unless the landlord accepts Section 8 vouchers.

If your rental property qualifies as federally assisted housing, here’s what you should know:

  • Protection against discrimination. Landlords cannot refuse to rent to applicants or evict tenants solely based on them being a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, or stalking. Criminal acts that are directly related to violence from household members or guests cannot be used as a reason to evict the victim.
  • Permissible evictions for victims. Victims of domestic violence can be evicted if you can prove there is an actual and immediate threat to your other tenants at the property or employees if the victim continues to live there; victims can also be evicted for serious and repeated lease violations that aren’t related to the abuse. In either case, victims can’t be held to a higher standard than other tenants.
  • Evicting the abuser. The lease may be split by evicting the abuser and allowing other members of the household to continue to live at the rental property; all applicable eviction laws must be followed. In addition, the family members who remain must retain their rights as tenants.
  • Certifying the victim’s claims. If a tenant requests VAWA protections, you have the right to request that they certify they’re a victim. Official documentation isn’t required; you may use the victim’s statement alone. If you choose to request documentation, you must submit the request to the tenant in writing and give them at least 14 business days to provide it.
  • Acceptable documentation. Some acceptable forms of documentation to request include:
    • HUD-50066, available at or from the Section 8 office,
    • A police or court report, such as a current order of protection, or
    • A signed statement from a medical professional, attorney, or victim service provider who states under penalty of perjury that the claims of abuse are valid
  • Confidentiality. All information disclosed by the tenant must be kept confidential, unless
    • the release of the information is required by law
    • The tenant gives you written permission to disclose the information
    • The information is needed for eviction. In this case, you must inform the victim before the eviction proceedings so that safety risks can be assessed.

VAWA protections don’t limit your obligation to honor court orders for access to or control of the property, such as orders to protect the victim or divide property among household members—nor do they replace any local, state, or federal laws that provide greater protections for victims.

Domestic Violence Laws Vary Across the Country

Regardless of the housing sector your property falls under, it’s important to review local and state laws to determine your responsibilities in the matter, as both can vary widely based on location.

For example, California law requires landlords to change the locks within 24 hours for tenants who have a restraining order or a police report related to domestic violence, violent threats, sexual assault, or stalking. In Illinois, victims of domestic abuse may be able to have the locks changed at their expense provided they:

  • Provide written notice from all tenants requesting that the locks be changed because one of the tenants or a member of the tenant’s household is at imminent risk of domestic violence, violent threats, sexual assault, or stalking; and
  • The notice must be accompanied by proof that supports these claims, such as medical, court, or police evidence, or a statement from a domestic violence or rape crisis organization that provided services to the tenant

If the threat of domestic or sexual violence comes from someone who is a tenant in the same unit or the landlord doesn’t have a written lease, the proof provided with the written notice must be a copy of a plenary order of protection or a plenary civil no-contact order that specifically grants the tenant exclusive rights to the premises.

Advice for Landlords in All Sectors

Domestic abuse is just as common in the private sector as it is in federal housing, so it’s important to be aware of the signs it may be happening. These include:

  • Personal disclosures of domestic abuse, such as a tenant telling you they don’t feel safe at home
  • Misidentified anti-social behavior, such as repeated noise or nuisance complaints from neighbors due to physical altercations, verbal abuse, slamming doors, throwing objects, or punching walls
  • Late rent payments due to economic abuse from a partner
  • Property damage, such as broken windows, holes in the wall, or damage to appliances
  • Requests for added security measures or lock changes, especially if the perpetrator has left the property

If you believe your tenant is experiencing domestic abuse, you should ask them about their situation when they’re safe and alone. They may not want to discuss it, however, you can begin by asking closed questions that allow them to give yes or no answers, such as “is it a safe time to talk to you?” Some tenants may be reluctant to talk about the situation, as they may fear they won’t be believed or that they risk eviction. One example of how the subject could be approached is by saying, “I’ve received some noise complaints lately, so I wanted to check on you and see if there’s anything I can do to help.”

If the tenant wants to talk, here are some dos and don’ts to follow:

  • Do listen without judgment
  • Do believe them
  • Do validate what you’re telling them, such as “I’m glad you told me.”
  • Don’t confront the abuser, as this could put the household at risk
  • Don’t contact the police or other special services unless:
    • Someone is being actively violent on the property, or
    • There’s an immediate risk of the victim being harmed, or
    • When you need to report safeguarding concerns about an adult or child in the household, or
    • You suspect abuse toward a vulnerable adult

If there is no immediate crisis but you suspect there may be ongoing abuse, you can also provide the tenant with the number for The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233).

Additional Resources

Domestic violence is a complicated situation—for victims, as well as landlords. For that reason, your best bet may be to consult with legal counsel on how best to proceed if you discover domestic abuse at one of your properties. Normally, tenants who are victims of domestic violence are still required to pay rent in full and on time; they can be evicted for non-payment issues, but you may want to consider other avenues first. There are many alternatives to help tenants through difficult situations, including referring them to an organization that provides emergency assistance to abuse victims or those facing eviction.

Some additional resources include:

Landlords Property Managers Contact TSCI