Abuse Victims Face Bias, Study Says

By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 8, 2008

A new study has found that victims of domestic abuse are likely to face discrimination when seeking rental housing in the District, despite a law prohibiting such bias.

The investigation was initiated by the Equal Rights Center, a Washington fair-housing advocacy group that has conducted civil-rights testing for 25 years. The study, done in January and February, covered 93 rental properties. It found that in 65 percent of the cases of domestic-abuse victims seeking housing, they were denied it outright or offered disadvantageous conditions to get an apartment.

The study was intended to calculate the extent of the problem one year after a law took effect in the District to protect victims of domestic violence from being denied rental housing, said Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, the center's executive director. The legislation was designed, in part, to stem homelessness among women and children, who make up about half the city's homeless population. The leading cause of homelessness among women is domestic violence, advocates say.

"The people who are most vulnerable in society should not be discriminated against," Kahn said. "These people are victimized twice, once by the person who attacked them and then by the places where they're trying to find a place to live."

The study was conducted using "matched pair" testers -- two testers whose profiles were similar with respect to characteristics such as age, sex and income. The difference was in their status relating to domestic violence.

In calls to leasing agents of multifamily rental properties, one tester posed as an advocate seeking housing for a client who was a domestic violence victim. The second tester simply said she was looking for housing for herself. The domestic-violence victim advocate initiated the call; the second, or control, tester called the same leasing agent at least 30 minutes later but within the same day.

The center found that 65 percent of the test applicants seeking housing on behalf of domestic violence victims were denied housing or offered less advantageous terms and conditions than the control group. Of the 65 percent, 9 percent were denied housing and 56 percent were offered adverse terms or conditions.

In collaboration with the Equal Rights Center, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the District Alliance for Safe Housing are conducting free training on the D.C. law and a similar federal law regarding the rights of domestic violence victims.

The training sessions are geared to housing providers and advocates for victims of domestic violence; landlords and property managers; tenant association presidents and organizers; and domestic violence and housing lawyers. The training schedule and registration can be found at http://www.dccadv.org/rsvp. The Equal Rights Center report, titled "No Vacancy," can be found at http://www.equalrightscenter.org/publications.

Rena Pina, deputy director of the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said housing discrimination against victims takes many forms, as the study showed. It can include a landlord refusing to repair damage caused by an abusive spouse or partner. All such actions are now illegal in the District, she said.

"We're not only helping to educate landlords and advocates and housing attorneys but we're also working to educate survivors so they know what their rights are under this new D.C. law," Pina said.

Kathy Zeisel, a lawyer with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said the biggest challenge facing advocates is changing the stereotypical images that some landlords and leasing agents have about victims of domestic abuse.

"They think that the mere presence of a victim of domestic abuse will cause danger to everyone around them in the apartment building," Zeisel said. "The stereotype is that they will invite the batterer back into the household or that they'll just continue to get into the same bad relationships. . . . But safe housing is really a key part in [the victim] being able to get away from that situation."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company