breaching rental agreement domestic violence laws

Did you know that California landlords must allow tenants to break their rental agreement (with no financial penalties) if they are victims of domestic violence?  Or that in Oregon, landlords cannot evict tenants who are victims of domestic violence for noise or disturbance violations?  And they are simply a few among many states and provinces with statutes regulating how landlords and property managers handle domestic violence scenarios.

Landlords and property managers who have been in the industry long enough have plenty of horror stories about tenants, and these often include domestic violence situations.  In the United States approximately 1.3 million women are victims of domestic violence each year, and about 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.  While these are disturbing statistics, they reveal how critical it is that landlords and property managers understand their local laws, both to help protect tenants and to avoid unwittingly breaking landlord-tenant laws.

One of the most vital factors in helping victims of domestic violence is physical separation from their abuser, which can be a sticky situation for a landlord or property manager.  If the victim breaks the rental agreement early and vacates the premises, they may be liable for the unpaid rent, depending on the laws in that particular state or province.  This may be considered abandonment, if the victim is the only signatory on the rental agreement and they vacate early.

For landlords and property managers, domestic violence situations can put not only the original victim at risk but other neighboring tenants as well, as they may feel inclined to intervene either physically or by calling the police.  This can cause further violence and retribution, which not only puts all of the tenants at risk but can cause major property damage and lead to tenant attrition.

There are a variety of statutes regulating what type of abuse and what type of victim qualify for early rental agreement termination.  Some statutes only apply when the tenant is the target of the abuse, while other statutes also apply to situations where a tenant’s child or another member of the household is the victim.  New York’s law applies when a person has obtained an order of protection and a court finds there is a “substantial risk of harm to the person or the person’s child”.  However, states such as New Jersey and Michigan only require a tenant to have a reasonable apprehension of harm to themselves or a child to terminate their lease early.

However, legal responsibility does not fall solely on the landlord.  Tenants must take the necessary steps as well.  All statutes require the tenant to notify the landlord of their early lease termination.  In addition, many states require some type of proof of the domestic violence, such as an order of protection or a police report documenting the domestic violence.  The time period for written notice varies greatly from state to state. Arizona and Indiana, for example, require that the incident must have occurred within the 30 days prior to the tenant’s notice.  California requires that the notice must be given within 60 days of the tenant obtaining documentary proof of the abuse and Illinois requires notice within 60 days of the act of sexual violence.

Each state and province has their own set of specific regulations, which is why it is so essential to be aware of the statutes in the states where your properties are located. In many states, such as Washington and Oregon, it is illegal for a landlord to evict tenants that are victim to domestic abuse for noise or disruption reasons, even in cases when there have been complaints from neighbors.  However, in Oregon and a number of other states, evicting the abusive tenant is legal.  Any discrimination of victims of domestic abuse is illegal, for example refusing to lease to, or threatening to evict, tenants because of their history of being victims of domestic violence.  There are also situations where it is lawful for a victim to change the locks of the property without the landlord’s approval for their own safety.

While one hopes to never encounter a situation where a tenant is a victim of domestic abuse, being aware of the domestic violence legislation in your state or province will help maintain a safe environment for all of your tenants and will keep you informed of your rights and options when these situations arise.