By Sandra S. Park, staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project
This April, we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, the federal law prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability. April is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month, giving us an opportunity to examine the often-overlooked intersection between fair housing rights and the needs of women who experience sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence.
Enacted in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, the Fair Housing Act has been important in fighting discrimination on many fronts, including racial segregation, restrictive zoning laws affecting people with disabilities and discrimination against families with children headed by unmarried couples. The act also provides legal protection against the all-too-common practice of refusing to sell or rent to people of color, immigrants, and others.
It is a little-known fact that violence is a primary cause of homelessness for women and their families. Women often must decide between homelessness and enduring sexual harassment or assault by landlords or property managers. In addition, women who report domestic violence to the police may face potential eviction once their landlords learn of the abuse. Until women can both keep their homes and seek the help they need to be free of violence, they will never be secure in the place where they should feel most safe.
To tackle the intertwined problems of violence against women and housing discrimination, ACLU advocates have turned to the Fair Housing Act. We have argued that just as sexual harassment of female employees cannot be tolerated in the workplace, sexual harassment of a female tenant by a residential manager must be recognized as a form of sex discrimination. We have also held landlords accountable when they buy into the gender stereotype that domestic violence victims invite or control the abuse. When a landlord blames the victim for damage caused by her "guest," after her batterer breaks into her apartment in violation of a protective order, the landlord punishes the victim based on the sexist belief that unlike victims of other crimes, victims of domestic violence are culpable for the crimes committed against them.
The Fair Housing Act gives advocates some tools, but more must be done to eliminate discrimination against women in their own homes. Although HUD proposed regulations prohibiting sexual harassment in housing in the final days of the Clinton administration, it never finalized them in the intervening eight years. Nor has HUD issued any regulations implementing the Violence Against Women Act of 2005, which outlaws discrimination against survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking in public housing and some federally subsidized housing. In order to truly celebrate fair housing, we must see these additional steps taken so that all women have recourse if they experience harassment or discrimination in housing. As Dr. King said, "A right delayed is a right denied."
For more information regarding the work done by the ACLU Women’s Rights Project on sex discrimination in housing, check out www.aclu.org/fairhousingforwomen.