*Marilyn asked her real name not be used for this story.
It was Christmastime at the apartment complex. On Dec. 2, 2014, Marilyn* and her 3-year-old son strung lights and hung ornaments on a tree inside her New Orleans apartment.
Marilyn, a nursing student, moved into the apartment complex three years earlier. She liked her neighbors — they'd say hello and often tell her she was a good mother. That night, Marilyn's ex-boyfriend knocked at the door. He was there to help decorate the tree and spend time with their son.
But he wanted more. Marilyn refused his advances. He got angry. He grabbed her by her throat. He shoved her to the ground. He threw her against a bedroom mirror. Marilyn escaped. He left. Police arrived. She went to a nearby hospital for treatment.
The next day, less than 24 hours after the attack, Marilyn's property manager told her she had to move out of her apartment.
Six days later, Marilyn and her son were gone.
According to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court late last year, Marilyn says her now-former property manager had threatened to evict her because of the apartment's "zero tolerance" policy on domestic violence. The policy says that a "resident or any member of the resident's household, or a guest or other person under the resident's control, will not be involved in any aspect of domestic violence." The lease agreement states that any violation of those terms gives the landlord permission to terminate the lease.
"At first they were telling me I had to be out that Friday," Marilyn says. "Then I begged — and I tell you, I begged just for the end of the weekend — so they allowed me until that Monday."
She says the apartment complex security guard called the police the night of the attack, which tipped off the property manager. She had until the end of the week to leave before the landlord filed an eviction, she says. That threat of eviction was, essentially, the same as an eviction. In either case, she had to leave. The landlord kept her deposit.
"They said I could stay a few extra days before the eviction proceedings could be filed," she says. "I don't want to have that on my record. So I just did what I had to do, which was turn in the keys."
The federal Fair Housing Act makes a person's sex a protected class from discrimination in housing. Marilyn's suit alleges that because a disproportionate number of women are victims of domestic violence, her former landlord discriminated against her in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
The federal Violence Against Women Act protects domestic violence victims receiving housing vouchers or living in subsidized housing — about 20 percent of renters in Louisiana, according to the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence (LCADV). That rule doesn't extend to victims who rent with cash, like Marilyn.
Women in Louisiana — our mothers, sisters, daughters — are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to either living with abuse or having a safe place to live. — Monica Gerhart-Hambrick, policy advisor with the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center
That could all change. One Baton Rouge legislator wants to expand the scope of that protection to all victims. In 2014, the Louisiana Legislature passed one of the most ambitious legislative packages ever to change how criminal justice agencies handle domestic violence. All the bills sailed through to the governor's desk — except one: the bill to protect domestic violence victims from eviction.
This year's bill tweaks last year's measure to satisfy concerns from the landlord lobby. Housing advocates and victims hope it's enough.
More than 5,000 women in Louisiana are victims of domestic violence each year, according to LCADV. In order to house those women, the state needs 700 shelter beds. It currently has 400, and only half the parishes in the state have shelters or an address where victims can safely go. Louisiana is, however, one of the most dangerous states for women facing domestic violence. The state has one of the highest murder rates for women killed by a husband, partner or ex-partner.
"Women in Louisiana — our mothers, sisters, daughters — are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to either living with abuse or having a safe place to live," says Monica Gerhart-Hambrick, policy advisor with the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.
According to LCADV, nearly one in three women in shelters in Louisiana lost their housing because of the actions of an abuser. In rental-heavy areas of the state, the numbers are even higher: 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. Beth Meeks, executive director of the LCADV, says the state also has a high "turnaway" rate: Last year, nearly 2,700 women were turned away from shelters because "we just don't have room for [them]," Meeks said.
Rental agreements like Marilyn's — which expressly forbid any involvement with domestic violence, whether the renter was the abuser or victim — are not uncommon, Gerhart-Hambrick says.
"We were getting a sense that a more systemic issue was happening, but we wanted a way to tap into a pool of victims of domestic violence — there's no easy way to outreach to survivors. What we got back was astounding," she says. "It's this unique category of criminal activity where we hold the victim accountable for a crime. No other category of criminal activity do we do that."
Legislative committees met on the issue before this year's session started. In its report to a joint House and Senate committee last December, LCADV and its partner organization Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS) pointed to two types of housing issues faced by victims: They won't call police because they fear it violates a "zero tolerance" clause in their lease, and they just want to be able to leave without impacting their credit, losing their deposits or interrupting their lives and livelihoods.
"If I would have known that if I would have called the police I would be evicted," reads one testimony from a SLLS client, "I would have just taken the beating."
State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, introduced legislation to protect domestic violence victims.
"Many individuals, when they are involved with domestic abuse, if they are trying to maintain a life but have an encounter, they have had several reported instances of individuals being evicted," Broome says. "That can lead to homelessness. We want to try and work with the landlords but also provide protection for the person who is leasing."
Broome's 2014 legislation attempted to make domestic violence a protected class under the Louisiana Equal Opportunity Housing Act. "The legislature finds and declares that persons in this state who seek a place to live should be able to find such housing whenever it is available," reads Senate Bill 233. "All persons should therefore be able to compete for available housing on an open, fair, and equitable basis, regardless of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, or whether a victim of domestic abuse." Despite the bill passing the full Senate and a House committee unanimously, the measure was killed on the House floor by a wide margin of 34-63. How did it fail in a year that brought so many domestic violence protections to Louisiana?
The Apartment Association of Louisiana (AAL) sees it differently. The group represents more than 90,000 rental units. In committee hearings last year, AAL representatives said they're just not seeing wrongful evictions of domestic violence victims. AAL also requested several changes to the legislation, including "reasonable documentation" that identifies a tenant's domestic violence victim status. Landlords, they said, want to be removed from liability, whether that's determining one tenant's safety over another, or selecting one applicant over another. The organization raised several other questions: What about court-ordered restraining orders and protective orders? How do we determine whom we evict from a joint lease? What about computerized applications and background checks that overlook whether someone is a victim? AAL testified, "By treating everyone exactly the same way, it saves us all."
Broome didn't reintroduce that same legislation in 2015. Instead, she and housing advocates started from scratch — with the landlords in mind.
"One of the reasons it was defeated is because of the concern of landlords," Broome says. "That is why we not only are attempting to assist victims of domestic violence and protect them, we're also trying to protect the landlords in the process. Hopefully, it'll make it more palatable for the landlords who had concerns last year."
This year Broome's Senate Bill 174 does several things. It allows victims to end their leases early without forfeiting their deposits, provided they arrange a date at least 30 days in advance with the landlord (and pay through the mutually agreed-upon termination date). It gives victims the right to bifurcate the lease, lawfully excluding an abuser who also is on the lease and giving landlords the ability to evict them. It allows tenants to call police without posing a threat to their lease agreement. And it requires victims to show proof of their victim status, whether through a police report, a mental health professional or an agency or employee recognized by the Department of Children and Family Services. That requires a Certification of Abuse form, which asks for a victim's description of the "incident giving rise to the claim of abuse," as well as a signed declaration of their status.
"We did get a lot of pushback last year from the landlords," Broome says. "[They] felt that the prior bill was tying their hands if a person is not paying their rent. They could use the domestic violence as an excuse for not paying their rent or avoiding eviction. Now they have to have the certification of domestic abuse. That's where the landlords are protected."
That form is based on paperwork required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for domestic violence victims. With a "Certification of Domestic Violence, Dating Violence or Stalking," those victims are afforded public hou- sing protection.
"Anything that happened — whether an ex-boyfriend showed up or they contact emergency assistance because of abuse happening in their apartment — they're already protected," Gerhart-Hambrick says. "But their neighbor who is paying cash one door down, they're not protected. This creates a more level playing field. ... Legislators will have an important opportunity to stand with victims — or not."
The bill was introduced in a Senate committee last week, and it likely will face a similar battle as Broome's measure did in 2014. On April 28, the AAL testified against Broome's new bill at the Senate's Judiciary B committee, which is chaired by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans. Morrell has championed several domestic and sexual violence bills. Again, the AAL raised concerns over liability and being "judge and jury" for what are criminal offenses.
"Most people I spoke with said, 'Don't come asking me to vote against domestic violence,'" said Jennifer Ansardi, a lobbyist for the AAL. "My presence here today isn't asking you to vote against domestic violence. ... I'm asking you to help us to be in the best position possible to help victims. ... There are defects in the bill that may put us in the position to make an assessment or judgment when we're not qualified to do so."
Ansardi said she supports the bill requiring a document to identify victims ("That's very clear-cut. We can work with that.") but asked what happens if two or more people on a lease have those documents. "What do we do? Who do we appeal to for that?"
"Who is a victim? How long are they protected?" asked Stacey Shane-Schott, who sits on the AAL board and owns 9,500 rental units in Louisiana and Mississippi. "Give me a simple bill to help me understand what I'm supposed to do."
We spent exhaustive hours discussing how we could address the concerns of the opposition. ... They said they're concerned about victims of domestic violence. ... But if you're really genuinely, authentically concerned, you had the opportunity in the interim to do that. What I'm hearing is not a good-faith effort. — State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome
Shane-Schott also took issue with punitive damages in the event of a suit against a landlord who violates the measure.
"This punishes landlords more than the abusers themselves," she said. (Morrell later told her, "We put abusers in jail. ... There are probably a lot of survivors in this room who were offended by your comment.")
Shane-Schott said the bill's lease bifurcation clause "is really kind of going against what we were trying to achieve here," she said. "We do not evict. We post eviction. ... A judge is deciding."
"Bifurcation is easy: if you have two lessees, you put one person on the hook for the lease and kick the other person out," Morrell said. "The reason the bill is messy is because life is messy. ... If you make the bill too specific, landlords are going to use specificity to get out of it."
H. Cameron Murray, who represents the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, called the bill "wonderful" but said protective orders in existing law can accomplish the same thing.
"We want to protect victims from residing or being around their abusers, but right now we already have a system in place that does that," he said. He also agreed the bill is "messy" as written, because terminating a victim's lease could terminate the agreements for anyone else living in the home. Murray suggested instead of pushing a bill to terminate a lease, legislators should look at absolving victims from liability on a lease.
"Think about college roommates," he said. "Those two [or] three other people involved just had their lease terminated. ... These are fairly easy to fix."
"We did our homework," Broome said in her closing remarks. "We spent exhaustive hours discussing how we could address the concerns of the opposition. ... They said they're concerned about victims of domestic violence. ... But if you're really gen-uinely, authentically concerned, you had the opportunity in the interim to do that. What I'm hearing is not a good-faith effort."
The bill was reported favorably from the committee without any opposition.
Wearing charcoal-colored nurse scrubs, Marilyn sits straight in a chair at the head of a long desk and holds a sheet of paper. She has written down what happened to her last December. It's too painful to recite from memory.
"I'm trying to keep my son's life from being disrupted ... but getting evicted because of my ex's violence made that very hard for me," she says.
Marilyn had only a few days to find somewhere to live after she left her apartment complex. She did find a place, but it was a more expensive apartment in New Orleans East, much farther from her job and her son's school than her previous place.
One night after working a shift at her second job, she was robbed at gunpoint in the parking lot of her apartment complex.
"I moved from there. I was so afraid. They told us to run, and when they told us to run — it was my little brother and I — we were banging [on the doors], trying to get inside. They watched us. I was afraid they might come back. They had my purse with all my identification. I was sleeping uncomfortably."
Six months after her attack, Marilyn — her son now 4 years old — is buying a house. Her case does not yet have a hearing date.
"I have a big heart," she says. "That's why I'm a nurse, and that's why I'm going to school for nursing. I don't want to see other women going through this."— CORRECTION In the original version of this story, a transcription error led to a misquote of the AAL's Stacey Shane-Schott. That has been corrected. Gambit regrets the error.