December 2008Volume 14Number 2PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

New law offers better protection for victims of violence (but we’re not where we need to be quite yet)

Recently, our State Legislature passed and the Governor signed into law as PA095-0999 an amendment to the 2006 Safe Homes Act (“SHA”). Found at 765 ILCS 750/1 et seq., the SHA is a relatively new addition to state statutes that aim to protect victims of domestic and sexual abuse; the amendment further facilitates the protections. Because the overwhelming number of victims of such violence are women and children, this article uses the female gender throughout, but with the clear appreciation that any individual can be subjected to abuse and is entitled to seek the benefits of the SHA.

According to its stated purpose, the SHA is intended to “enable victims of domestic or sexual violence and their families to flee existing dangerous housing in order to leave violent or abusive situations, achieve safety, and minimize the physical and emotional injuries from domestic or sexual violence, and to reduce the devastating economic consequences thereof.” 765 ILCS 750/5. In essence, the SHA permits a woman living in private rental housing (public housing is excluded from coverage), along with any endangered children, to vacate her rental premises and terminate her written or oral lease when her physical safety and emotional wellbeing are threatened by an abuser. If a woman in such danger has a written lease, she may also change the locks on her unit in order to keep the abuser out of the home.

To avail herself of the SHA’s protection, the tenant must face a ‘credible imminent threat’ (defined in Section 10) on the residential premises, and give the landlord written notice three days before or after she leaves the home. If the tenant follows this process and also satisfies the other elements set forth in Section 15(b), including, with some exceptions, a showing that the sexual violence occurred not more than 60 days prior to the date of giving notice to the landlord, she is entitled to an affirmative defense against the landlord’s claims for rent and/or breach of lease, and is not liable for any rent that accrues for the period after she vacates the premises.

If the woman decides to stay on the premises (possibly with her children and/or other protected persons in the unit) but wants the lock changed, she may request the landlord to change it. The request must be in writing and signed by all tenants who are lessees under the lease, and it must be based upon a reasonable belief that “one of the tenants or a member of tenant’s household is under a credible imminent threat of domestic or sexual violence at the premises from a person who is not a lessee under the lease.” At least one of the several forms of evidence listed in Section 20 must accompany the notice, such as a statement from a victim services employee or rape crisis organization, or court or police evidence of domestic or sexual violence. Following receipt of notice, the landlord has 48 hours to change the locks or give the tenant permission to do so.

The amendment, set forth in a new Section 27 of the SHA, buttresses the protections for abused or threatened women by prohibiting landlords from disclosing (1) information to a prospective landlord that a tenant has exercised her rights under the SHA or (2) information the tenant has shared with her landlord in her exercise of those rights. By written consent, this prohibition may be waived by the tenant or member of the tenant’s household. 765 ILCS 750/27. Any landlord who violates the prohibition faces potential civil liability of up to $2,000 in actual damages resulting from the disclosure, as well as payment of attorney fees for the prevailing plaintiff.

Having the benefits of this legislation could be comforting and even useful, but there are many hurdles for victims to overcome in their attempts to pursue the remedies available under the SHA. Getting out of the rental premises may be necessary, but supportive services must be readily available and accessible so the fleeing woman does not end up on the streets either alone or with her children. Additionally, some of the requirements imposed upon the tenant, especially the one for obtaining signatures of all lessees in order to get a lock changed, can be so time-consuming and burdensome that a woman in danger of suffering abuse or further abuse is likely be attacked before the necessary notice is obtained and presented to the landlord.

Despite the problems inherent in the SHA, its early advocates believed that getting it passed, even with compromises, was an important first step. Now the work on gradual amendments benefiting tenants, like the one discussed in this article, can continue. Further efforts are also needed to educate women and the communities in which they live, as well as landlords, about the SHA, and to disseminate information about social service and housing agencies that can assist women and their families exposed to domestic and sexual violence in exercising their rights under the SHA and finding alternative housing, employment and legal aid services. These resources may succeed in preventing landlords from hiring collection agencies to harass tenants who have left under the auspices of the SHA or wrongfully keeping those tenants’ security deposits. As importantly, the resources will enable women who have taken these brave steps, many with children, to continue on the path to safety, increased self-esteem, and independence.

If you know of someone on either a personal or professional basis (a client or colleague) who is in need of protection from an abuser, additional information and guidance on how to utilize the resources of the SHA and assure that a landlord subject to its provisions is in full compliance with the law, refer her to Kate Walz, Senior Housing Attorney at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law at 50 E. Washington St. in Chicago, Phone No. 312.263.3830. Another valuable resource is Housing Opportunities for Women, an organization that helps single mothers find affordable housing and employment that will enable them to stay in that housing. Britt Shawver, Executive Director of that Chicago group, can be reached at 773.454.1142. These individuals and their organizations, and others like them, should be supported in their missions, as they are working continually on reaching out to victims and the public, enlightening legislators on the need for passing legal remedies and law enforcement on the need for understanding victims’ circumstances and for providing appropriate intervention in the cycle of violence, and generally advocating for development and funding of sufficient and relevant programs. The Shriver Center and H.O.W. can also offer materials and speakers.

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