It wasn’t the first time the 45-year-old woman’s husband had verbally abused her. But last September, he “spiraled out of control,” she said. In front of their children in their Northeast D.C. living room, he threatened to stab her to death.
The woman immediately called the police and soon obtained a civil protection order against her husband, who left the home. But a city-issued housing voucher was based on their joint income. Working as a custodian and supporting their three children, she didn’t earn enough to pay the family’s share of the rent on a three-bedroom apartment.
After denying her repeated requests for help, the D.C. Housing Authority stopped making housing payments altogether last month, according to a complaint filed in federal court Wednesday on behalf of the woman. Now, the woman and two of her children are at risk of eviction.
“I’m already stressed out with all that I went through, all that I’m going through,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she fears retaliation from her former husband. “I just can’t do it by myself.”
The federal complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia alleges the Housing Authority unlawfully ended the woman’s assistance and denied her request for a hearing. The lawsuit, filed by the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia and the D.C. law firm Alston & Bird, claims the agency violated the woman’s constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment as well as the federal Violence Against Women Act and D.C. regulations.
The woman’s lawyers are seeking a preliminary injunction that would require the Housing Authority to immediately issue the woman a new voucher and resume paying the subsidy to her landlord.
A Housing Authority spokesman declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation.
The Violence Against Women Act provides protections for victims of domestic violence who rely on housing assistance. D.C. regulations parallel federal law by requiring that if a family breaks up because of domestic violence, the victim of the violence must continue to receive housing assistance, the complaint said.
Victims of domestic violence are particularly vulnerable to homelessness. Nearly a third of women who are homeless in the District said violence was a cause, according to a 2017 report. For many domestic violence victims, a housing voucher is a form of financial stability, said Stephanie Westman, an attorney at Legal Aid.
Cases like this one could send a discouraging message to other people trying to escape a dangerous living situation, Westman said.
“Word gets around,” she said. “If a client knows or has heard of someone in the past not being able to retain their housing voucher to get out of a domestic violence situation, that’s going to be another incentive for that person to stay in an abusive relationship.”
The woman at the center of the case had been married to her husband for nearly two decades before their separation and had participated in the District’s housing voucher program since December 2017.
A voucher recipient pays a portion of the rent based on a percentage of the family’s income, and the Housing Authority pays the rest directly to the landlord.
In this woman’s case, her former husband was listed as the “head of household,” and the amount of the voucher based on their joint income was about $300. The family was responsible for paying the remainder of the rent, about $1,700.
In October, according to the complaint, the woman showed the Housing Authority copies of her civil protection order and requested a new voucher based on her income alone. She sent numerous letters to the agency through her lawyers but did not receive a response to her request until late December, when her lawyers asked for an informal hearing with the agency.
Housing Authority officials issued her a temporary voucher but refused to remove her ex-husband’s income to recalculate the amount of rent she would have to pay, according to the complaint. In January, she asked for an administrative hearing with the Housing Authority but was told she was not entitled to one because she was not a head of household.
Then, in February, the Housing Authority stopped making subsidy payments altogether, the complaint said.
The woman, who is still living in the apartment, fell behind on the rent.
“We just said we wanted a hearing, and they stopped paying,” said one of her lawyers, Elena Bowers, a staff attorney in the housing law unit at Legal Aid. “As lawyers, it was befuddling because we don’t know what they were thinking.”
The woman’s husband hasn’t made any contributions toward rent since December, according to the complaint. The woman, who makes about $45,000 a year cleaning bathrooms, now owes $5,917 in missed rent, which will be impossible for her to pay, she said.