This is the first of two blog posts that will explain a few housing law protections for survivors of sexual violence and how BARCC case managers can assist survivors in advocating for their rights under these laws.
When someone has committed sexual violence against you, it can impact many aspects of your life. At BARCC, our Case Management team often hears that survivors no longer feel safe in their own homes after an assault.
In some cases, a survivor doesn’t feel safe in their housing because the assault was committed in the survivor’s home. For others, it’s because the offender knows where the survivor lives. In many circumstances, our case managers can assist survivors and their loved ones in taking steps to leave an unsafe housing situation or increase safety at their current housing.
All market rent, private, and state public and subsidized housing in Massachusetts is protected under an Act Relative to Housing Rights For Victims of Domestic Violence, Rape, Sexual Assault and Stalking, which was signed into law in 2013. The law gives renters in Massachusetts who have recently been affected by domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, and stalking the following rights:
- To break your lease
- To have your apartment locks changed
- To not experience retaliation by your landlord, or a potential landlord in the future, for having had to break your lease or have your locks changed
- To not be evicted because you got a restraining order or called the police
- To not be forced by a landlord to waive these rights when signing a new lease
“The most common thing I’d say is people wanting to break their leases because of a safety concern,” said BARCC Case Manager Becca Britton-Anastas. “So we do an intake and figure out what the situation is, when the incident of sexual violence occurred, what the safety concern is, what kind of lease and housing they have.”
To qualify for the protections, a member of the household must be a survivor and the most recent incident must have been within three months, or a member of the household is fearful of serious physical harm in the near future. Once the Case Management team explains the housing protections to a survivor, the survivor may feel like they can advocate for themselves with a landlord. If a survivor isn’t comfortable bringing the issue back to the landlord, BARCC may reach out to the landlord directly, said Senior Case Manager Clare Namugga. BARCC may also refer the case to a pro bono lawyer or law student who can work with the survivor if the landlord pushes back. For survivors of domestic violence, Case Management may refer to the nearest domestic violence organization.
“Some landlords can be understanding, but for clients it’s always been powerful for them to know they have these rights,” said Clare.
Changing the locks after sexual violence is perpetrated is another frequent request, because landlords aren’t always responsive, said Becca. Under these protections, a landlord must either change the locks or give the renter permission to do so—otherwise the survivor can go ahead and change the locks. Case Management can work with survivors to try and get the cost covered under victim compensation or through other financial resources if a survivor doesn’t qualify for victim compensation.
If a survivor breaks their lease or changes their locks under these protections, a landlord legally cannot use it to say they were a bad tenant, and any future landlords can’t use it as a reason to deny someone an apartment
Similarly, if a survivor called police to report a sexual assault or take out a restraining order while in the apartment, a landlord couldn’t use that as a reason to evict the survivor. And no landlord can create a lease that asks a renter to waive these protections: any sections of a lease that attempts to do so aren’t enforceable by law.
To show how this housing law is used and how Case Management can help, below are two examples. Content note: sexual violence.
Priscilla*, a renter, was sexually assaulted in her apartment. She moved shortly after due to safety concerns. Priscilla’s previous landlord pressured her to continue paying rent, since her name was still on the annual lease for 10 more months. She continued to pay rent for four months in two housing situations.
Priscilla reached out to BARCC’s Case Management program for help with getting her name off the previous lease and to end the financial obligations stated in the terms of that lease. Case Management staff explained the applicable housing law protections and the process involved in breaking her lease and waiving financial obligations involved. Case Management staff supported her in notifying her landlord in writing about intent to break her lease due to safety concerns and to not be liable for rent afterward. BARCC collaborated with a legal services program to write a letter as a qualified third party verifying the safety concerns and the need for Priscilla to break her lease so that she would not continue to be liable for rent in the previous housing situation. Case Management also found financial resources that were offered to the survivor to help offset the double rent she paid in two housing situations for four months.
Alex*, a survivor with safety concerns, had spoken to their landlord, who said they would need to pay a large fee in order to move out before their lease ended.
During the initial intake, Case Management staff discussed housing protections and Alex's right to break their lease without financial penalty. Alex decided they would like Case Management staff to speak to the landlord on their behalf about their housing rights after Alex found alternative housing. Alex contacted Case Management staff when they had found another apartment.
Case Management staff reached out to the landlord and explained the Massachusetts housing law. The landlord said that Alex would need to come to the office and sign legal paperwork in order for the apartment's legal team to assess if the fee could be waived. Case Management staff reached out to a legal services program about this case after updating Alex. Alex began working with legal services to gather the necessary documentation to notify the landlord that they would be breaking the lease, including written notice of move-out date from Alex and a letter from Case Management staff. Case Management staff collaborated with legal services to write a letter as a qualified third party verifying the safety concerns and the need for Alex to relocate. Alex and legal services sent these documents to the landlord in order to break the lease.
*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Read more about this Massachusetts housing law, or request an appointment with BARCC Case Management online or by calling 617-492-8306.