Chicago Public Housing Museum Credit: Kymberly Janisch/Creative Commons

Just before Christmas 2019, “Katherine,” who asked her real name not be used for fear of retaliation from her alleged abuser, walked into an informal hearing held by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) that would decide the fate of her and her five children. She had received a notice from the agency that it planned to terminate her Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher (HCV)—assistance that the 44-year-old had depended on for the past ten years to afford her East Garfield Park apartment.

The HCV program helps low-income families rent market-rate apartments through subsidies provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The total monthly rent of Katherine’s apartment was $1,596, much more than she could afford. With the voucher, she only needed to pay $110 per month.

But Katherine fell behind on her rent after her abusive relationship with the father of her children depleted her already limited financial resources. According to Katherine, he would take away the money that she needed for bills. He would also punch holes in the apartment walls and she had to pay for repairs. Moreover, Katherine said, he stole her electronic benefits transfer card, which she used to receive food stamp benefits, and she was forced to spend her own money buying food for her and her children.

Katherine’s landlord eventually sued her for eviction due to outstanding rent payments and the CHA notified her that it would terminate her voucher because she had violated her lease.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) forbids Section 8 landlords and public housing authorities from evicting domestic violence survivors or terminating their housing subsidies based on the acts of the abuser. But legal experts said that there are still many hurdles facing domestic violence survivors like Katherine as they advocate for their housing rights under VAWA.

“A big gap is not everybody knows that these laws are in place and that certainly people who are the beneficiaries, the domestic violence survivors, may not know that they have these rights,” said Maria Foscarinis, founder of the National Homelessness Law Center and a leading advocate for VAWA’s expansion into the housing sphere. “Also the local housing authorities, the people who are supposed to be complying with this, don’t necessarily know what they’re supposed to be doing.”

According to a 2008 NLCHP survey of 3,398 annual and five-year plans submitted by public housing authorities across the nation, only 59.5 percent of all plans met the basic standard of compliance under VAWA and only 18.7 percent expressed preference for domestic violence survivors. Additionally, about 36 percent of housing providers reported a total of 2,558 survivors who were denied housing for reasons related to domestic violence and 41 percent of them reported a total of 832 survivors who received a termination notice or eviction paper.

The lack of an attorney in informal hearings held by public housing authorities––a procedure that every HCV participant is entitled to if they wish to contest a termination decision––further contributes to survivors’ hardship. Unlike in criminal proceedings, people in these civil proceedings have no guaranteed right to an attorney. Sandra Park, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, said that in such cases, it can be difficult for survivors to navigate the complicated legal system on their own, especially when the housing authority almost always has an attorney.

“We have a serious issue in that tenants do not have a right to counsel in most places,” Park said. “It’s very complicated sometimes to assert your legal rights . . . you’re dealing with a very unbalanced power dynamic if you show up to court in an eviction case.”

It does not help that most domestic violence cases are not as straightforward as the law envisions, Park said. While domestic abuse often involves financial control over survivors, as in Katherine’s situation, it is harder to argue for protections based on financial abuse. Compared to more clear-cut cases where, for example, survivors lose their homes because their abusers broke the law during acts of violence, there is less understanding among landlords and public housing officials when it comes to the implications of financial abuse. The burden falls on survivors to prove that their failure to pay rent is a direct result of domestic violence.

“Legally we’re still working that out,” Park said. “I think it will still be up to every decision-maker, whether it’s an administrative law judge or someone at the public housing authority. There’ll still be some sort of case-by-case analysis that has to be done.”

According to Seth Embry, a policy analyst at the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association, local housing authorities do not have enough resources to identify and assist victims of financial abuse, which he referred to as a gray area in VAWA protections.

“Any gray areas such as financial abuse that are unclear in the rules will likely result in any agency following its normal policies instead of providing accommodations to an individual eligible for VAWA protections,” Embry said. “It is important to note most agencies do not have any financial resources to help a victim of financial abuse and could not prevent a landlord from evicting a tenant who fails to pay rent.”

Losing the voucher was not an option for Katherine. But in front of the hearing officer with no attorney, the possibility seemed increasingly likely as she struggled to focus on the officer’s confusing barrage of questions.

A few months back, Katherine fled her longtime residence in East Garfield Park to escape from the escalating abuse and had been living with friends and families. Just hours before the hearing, however, her children’s father found her at her niece’s apartment and tried to break her finger in another episode of violence.

At the hearing, Katherine managed to recount the abuse that happened that morning. But when the officer asked her if domestic violence had impacted her ability to pay rent, she could not draw a connection between the two. She was overwhelmed and fearing for her safety.

The hearing officer later noted that Katherine was “clearly shaken up by her earlier experience of alleged abuse that morning” and was “in a relative state of confusion as she answered questions and provided testimony,” according to the officer’s recounting of the hearing in the final decision letter. But neither the hearing officer nor the CHA representative intervened to discontinue the hearing or move it to a later date.

The hearing officer concluded that Katherine’s termination was mandatory because she had violated her lease. The following month, Katherine was notified that she would be removed from the voucher program.

“The hearing officer just said over and over again how traumatized she was and how she was unable to even answer questions, which is very unusual,” said Jaclyn Koriath, an attorney at Legal Aid Chicago focused on the intersection between domestic violence and eviction. She began representing Katherine after the CHA’s decision to terminate her voucher. “If you look at what her state of mind is and her ability to competently testify on that day, it just wasn’t there.” “I’ve never seen a hearing officer continue like that.”

According to Park, many housing authority officials lack the cultural sensitivity to understand domestic violence and are sometimes downright hostile to survivors. “You just see a lot of situations where the authorities just don’t really sympathize with the victims and instead actually want them out of their system,” she said.

Over the years, Park has worked with many clients who suffered aggressive or insensitive responses from local housing authorities and landlords, from offering unsolicited religious advice to telling the abuser the survivor’s new address.

“Sometimes it happens because the victim does not fit the stereotype of what people expect a victim of domestic violence to act like, you know, quiet and crying,” Park explained. “But they are really loud and angry about what they’re experiencing. And that can trigger hostile reactions from officials.”

For Kris Billhardt, an activist from the National Alliance for Safe Housing who has worked in the anti-domestic and sexual violence movement for over three decades, the problem comes down to providers’ ignorance of how trauma can manifest in the actions and attitudes of domestic violence survivors.

“Somebody who’s dealing with trauma may have a hard time with following through. They may not show up for their appointments. They may not get the paperwork right. They may get lost in the maze of details that you’re throwing at them,” Billhardt said. “The provider might see that as somebody who’s noncompliant or somebody who doesn’t care about doing what they’re being asked to do.”

Billhardt continued. “If we don’t have that awareness of what trauma can look like, we can come to conclusions that make us reject that person or provide them with a different kind of diagnosis than what’s really going on with them.”

With Koriath’s counsel, on July 28, 2020, Katherine filed a complaint against the CHA, alleging that the agency had violated her rights under VAWA. On November 5, Katherine reached an agreement with the CHA to drop her complaint on the condition that she would be immediately reinstated into the voucher program.

While this means Katherine will likely see her voucher reinstated, most survivors fall through the cracks, experts said, because they either do not know their rights or do not have the resources to pursue them.

“Not everyone finds their way to our office,” said Koriath, who currently represents about 50 clients, most of whom struggle with domestic violence.

“People who are experiencing violence are very vulnerable, so the housing authority should have a better process of capturing this very vulnerable person and be more flexible in terms of helping them be protected.”

Park agreed with Koriath’s assessment, arguing that public housing authorities’ insufficient understanding of the law has led to situations of homelessness that could be easily prevented.

“It’s very common for there to be terminations that end in reinstatement [of vouchers] . . . after they came to us and we identified the fact that they should not have been terminated,” Park said. There were multiple occasions, according to her, where she simply wrote a letter to the housing authority and the authority reinstated her clients’ vouchers right away. “It’s a real tragedy because the person did not have the voucher for some period of time, sometimes years, and were essentially homeless.”   v