Bill to protect domestic violence victims from housing discrimination passes the Senate

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Following contentious debate on the floor of the Louisiana Senate, a bill that aims to protect victims of domestic violence from eviction and housing discrimination narrowly passed by a vote of 21-16.

Senate Bill 174 comes from state Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, who attempted a similar bill last year. The measure failed to pass the Louisiana House of Representatives, which could be the next stop for this year's legislation. This year's measure allows victims to arrange with their landlord an early termination of a lease; gives victims the right to bifurcate the lease, lawfully excluding an abuser who also is on the lease; allows tenants to call the police; and requires victims to show proof of their victim status. (For more on domestic violence evictions, read this week's cover story in Gambit.)

"One of the greatest challenges that victims of domestic violence face is finding or keeping safe and stable housing," Broome said in her opening statements. "There is not other category of criminal activity where we punish both the criminal and the victim."

Last month, SB 174 faced a round of opposition from landlords and property owners with the Apartment of Association of Louisiana (AAL). Broome had discussed the AAL's concerns last year in committees before this year's legislative session. Following last month's remarks from the AAL, Broome made even more amendments to her bill to address their concerns.

"I have exhausted all the opposition with specific responses," Broome said. "If you look at the amendments, they are indeed responses to every level of opposition that has evolved surrounding this bill."

At today's Senate vote, the bill faced criticism from state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, who feared that as written, the bill would allow someone to use a false police report (rather than relying on a full investigation and a conviction) to falsify their victim status in order to break a lease. Broom then removed "police report" as a valid form of victim identification from the bill. The bill requires victims have a certification of abuse as well as a third-party reference, whether from a mental health professional or physician.

"I have voted down the line with victims of domestic violence to protect them," Martiny said. "[But] the bill is so vague and wide open it’s not going to accomplish what we want it to do."

State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, defended Broome's measure. "It is a fact that you have women, spouses who are abused, who are trying to escape abusers and move into apartments or condominiums alone without their abuser," he said. "It's also a fact that the spouse who has just been beaten … will be evicted for doing nothing wrong."

The bill expands coverage to domestic violence victims living in private rentals, as victims in public housing are already protected from housing discrimination through the federal Violence Against Women Act.

In a statement from the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center following the vote, Beth Meeks, the executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence (LCADV), said, “Opposition has come from one single group and been based on hypothetical and unrealistic situations, while survivors from across the state have shared their real, lived experiences as victims of domestic abuse. Our hope is that legislators stand with constituents and victims, not well-heeled lobbyists."

Harriett Haworth, President of the Federation of Business and Professional Women of Kenner-Metairie, also said, “The business community benefits when there’s less pressure on victims who are part of our workforce. Our employees do better when they come to work without the emotional, physical and mental stress that comes with losing a home due to violence.”

According to LCADV, nearly one in three women in shelters in Louisiana lost their housing following a domestic violence incident. Those numbers are higher in parts of the state with more renters: nearly 50 percent of women in shelters in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, and 67 percent in St. Bernard Parish shelters, are homeless victims of domestic violence.


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