Lawsuit Could Impact Thousands of Domestic Violence Survivors
The Legal Aid Society and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP filed a lawsuit today in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York against the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) regarding the agency’s practice of excluding domestic violence survivors from Section 8 voucher “bifurcation” hearings that determine whether or not a survivor is able to stay in their home.
Domestic violence is a public health and human rights crisis and approximately one third of women have suffered from domestic violence across the United States. In New York City during 2017 alone, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) received over 100,000 reports of domestic violence. Coincidentally, many domestic violence survivors also rely on federal, state, and local housing subsidies, and when a low-income survivor decides to leave an abusive living situation, there is a risk that they may not be able to secure government assistance for new housing.
In 2005, Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to protect survivors of displacement from their homes. Specifically, Congress authorized the owner of a housing unit who was benefitting from public assistance the opportunity to bifurcate a lease. The purpose of a lease bifurcation is to remove the perpetrator from a unit without evicting, removing, terminating assistance to, or otherwise penalizing a survivor who seeks to remain in the unit. In 2013, Congress again reauthorized VAWA and added a provision requiring landlords and public housing agencies to provide survivors an opportunity to establish eligibility for a housing program after the abuser had been evicted and when the abuser was previously the only tenant receiving said housing assistance.
In New York City, HPD administers the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8), which provides assistance to eligible low- and moderate-income families to rent housing in the private market. Section 8 allows for “co-heads of households,” but its commonplace for abusers to only list themselves as the “head of household” to control the Section 8 voucher.
Often, when survivors have reported instances of domestic violence to HPD, only the abusers are notified of their due process rights, including official notice of the bifurcation hearing and an opportunity to share their side of the story. HPD does not provide similar due process rights to the survivors of domestic violence. Survivors are not formally notified of the bifurcation hearing or even allowed to be heard at the hearing. This egregious policy violates survivors’ due process rights and, because most survivors of domestic abuse are women, discriminates on the basis of sex.
This lawsuit was filed on behalf of B.D. – a survivor of domestic violence whose housing was jeopardized because of HPD’s current bifurcation practice – pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment and the Fair Housing Act.
“The Violence against Women Act protects low-income survivors from the Hobson choice of having to choose between homelessness or continuing to endure an abusive living situation,” said Casey Rubinoff, Staff Attorney with the Civil Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “HPD’s current practice is fraught with issues including discrimination and a lack of due process. Existing law requires that low-income survivors of domestic violence must be afforded the opportunity to stay in their homes. We look forward to correcting this practice in court very soon.”