An ordinance meant to protect domestic violence victims by ensuring they are not held liable for damage to rental units caused by their abuser is facing pressure from landlords who want the measure to include a fund to compensate them for potential losses.
The ordinance, put forth by Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, would expand protections already available at the Washington state level by exempting survivors from having to pay for damage caused by an abuser if they notify the landlord of the situation and have proof that they reported the abuse to “a qualified third party.”
But landlords objected, asking the council to include a mitigation fund similar to one created at the state level that compensates landlords who rent to low-income tenants using rental assistance for certain costs including damage to their units.
The legislation was partially inspired by a 2018 report from the King County Bar Association about evictions called “Losing Home” in which survivors reported that they stayed with their abuser in part because they faced eviction and financial instability if they did not.
Damaging a rental unit is one way that abusers trap their victims by purposefully saddling them with costs of repairing the unit, said Merril Cousin, executive director of the Coalition Ending Gender Based Violence.
Domestic violence is more than physical assault, Cousin said.
“Really, domestic violence is a whole pattern of coercion and control,” Cousin said.
Landlord groups argue that the legislation pushes the cost of the violence onto them while potentially harming survivors, the very group that it’s meant to protect.
On top of paying landlords for damage to the units, the mitigation fund would further protect survivors by removing the need for landlords to have to pursue the abuser through the courts, potentially involving the victim, said Brett Waller, the director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association (WMFHA).
“The only way to seek recovery would be through court action,” Waller said. “If that were the case, a landlord would need to call the survivor as their witness to the damage that was caused. That would allow the abuser to cross examine them.”
WMFHA worked with DAWN, the Domestic Abuse Women’s Network, on the modified proposal. It can be difficult for women to report to a third party about their abuse, opening them up to potentially lethal retaliation and trauma, said Angela Dannenbring, DAWN’s executive director.
“There is revictimization or additional trauma that comes from attempting to provide testimony about the damage,” Dannenbring said.
It’s hard to say exactly how big such a fund would have to be or where the money would come from. The state mitigation fund is paid for through an increase in document recording fees associated with real estate transactions.
Waller estimated that landlords often see between $1,000 and $2,000 worth of damage caused by abusers, and Dannenbring estimated that DAWN receives as many as 5,700 calls about domestic abuse each year. That could entail a substantive investment on the part of the city, but it’s difficult to say precisely what it would cost.
Herbold signaled that she was willing to discuss such a fund when the council sits down to create the next year’s budget, but hedged, questioning if the modification to the legislation was even necessary.
“Frankly, I’m really surprised that we’ve heard from folks who, in reaction to not having the ability to send a bill to the domestic violence survivor, the argument is the city should be paying for the damage,” Herbold said, going on to describe an example in which a domestic violence survivor was sent a bill for blood on the carpet, presumably her own.
Council members voted on seven technical amendments that aligned the ordinance better with existing state law and included additional definitions beyond “domestic violence” to include specific kinds of violence such as sexual assault, stalking and unlawful harassment.
It also made the effective date Jan. 1, 2020, to give the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections time to assess resources that it would need to enforce the new ordinance.
A new version of the ordinance is expected to come back to the Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development & Arts committee on Sept. 24.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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