Some Louisiana lawmakers are hoping that efforts to protect victims of domestic violence from eviction could become a key issue in the next legislative session.
The Louisiana House Civil Law Committee and the Senate Judiciary A Committee held a joint meeting at the State Capitol on Thursday to discuss the issue. A bill proposed this year that would have made domestic violence victims a protected class under the Louisiana Equal Housing Opportunity Act passed the state Senate unanimously but died in the House in the final days of the 2014 session.
“This is a very, very important subject — one that continues to eat away at many members of the Legislature, including myself,” said Senate Judiciary A Chairman Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa.
Victims’ advocates say that zero-tolerance policies that state arrests or claims of violence in apartments or other rental properties can be grounds for eviction have allowed domestic violence victims to be kicked out of their homes if they report their abuse to law enforcement.
“Right now, we have victims who are having to choose between reaching out for help or keeping their home,” said state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans. She was told a story of one woman who was injured so badly she had to stay in the hospital overnight. When the woman returned home, she found an eviction notice tacked to her door, Moreno said.
“I can’t even imagine the type of hopelessness that victim felt,” Moreno said. “That’s what victims are dealing with right now.”
Some landlords oppose the effort because they say it would put too much pressure on their roles. They argue that it would put them in a position of deciding who is the victim and who is the aggressor in situations of domestic violence and disputes.
“We just don’t want it to affect us,” said Stacey Shane-Schott, of the Louisiana Apartment Association. “Management companies should not be the judge or jury.”
Under ideas batted about Thursday, a victim of domestic violence would be able to use a police report or other documentation to show that he or she was the victim and not the aggressor. The group representing apartments would prefer a stricter route.
“We would rather have someone hand us a piece of paper and say, ‘Here’s a protective order,’ ” Shane-Schott said. “It’s already decided for us.”
Advocates for domestic violence victims argued that a restraining order can be difficult to obtain, and the experience can be psychologically taxing for victims.
Louisiana has one of the highest rates of domestic violence deaths in the country.
A Violence Policy Center report released in September found that Louisiana ranked fourth nationally behind only Alaska, South Carolina and Oklahoma based on homicide data from 2012, which was the most recent available.
The Legislature passed several bills last year aimed at curbing domestic violence. At least one of the new laws drew a public backlash in a Baton Rouge courtroom, after a judge claimed the law requiring perpetrators of domestic violence to stay behind bars for a “cooling off” period was too cumbersome.
Moreno said she believes that addressing the eviction issue will be among the top priorities for victims’ advocates in the coming legislative session.
“There is an effort that’s really growing to help solve this issue,” she said. “It’s something that needs to be worked on — it’s important for the safety of families across the state.”
State Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, said the issue has come up “year after year,” but he still doesn’t think it’s easy to address.
“I just don’t know what the solution is,” he said. “The guy that owns an apartment complex, is he supposed to have someone on staff to say, ‘He’s lying, and she’s telling the truth’ in these situations? It’s the practical application of how we come up with a solution.”
State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, a Baton Rouge Democrat who sponsored last year’s bill, said she believes the gap between what victims’ advocates and landlords see as the best solution needs to be closed.
“It’s my hope that the Apartment Association understands the issue at hand and would be open to coming up with some solutions,” she said.
State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, said he also hopes that the interests of rental property owners and management companies can be reflected in proposed legislation.
“We’re trying to strike a balance between competing interests,” he said. “Ultimately, there are good people on both sides.”