By Andy Metzger
State House News Service
BOSTON -- With his signature Thursday afternoon, Gov. Deval Patrick will ease the ability of domestic-violence victims to extract themselves from housing leases.
Under a bill Patrick is ready to make law, tenants who have been subjected to domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking will be able to -- within three months of the crime -- issue a written notice to their landlords and then leave the property.
All tenants who are not perpetrators of the violence will be relieved of all rent due for up to a year on the lease, according to legislation that cleared the House and Senate during lightly attended informal sessions.
"We're really pleased that the Legislature has passed this and the governor's going to sign it today, so we're thrilled," said Maureen Gallagher, director of policy at anti-domestic violence group Jane Doe Inc. She said Jane Doe's member organizations have been working on the legislation for "a number of years."
According to Jane Doe, victims of domestic violence have faced eviction from landlords related to abusers, have been forced to continue paying rent after fleeing an apartment, and have been met with landlords unwilling to change an apartment's locks after a stalker used a key to break in several times. Eviction protections were not included in the final bill.
Aside from relieving certain people from rental obligations, the bill also prevents landlords from refusing to rent to someone because of his or her victimization and authorizes lock changes at a tenant's expense.
The bill also won support of the Small Property Owners Association after language was removed that would have hampered landlords' ability to evict tenants who were victims of domestic violence.
"We were willing to concede that victims of domestic violence, with proper notice, could quit their tenancy in mid-lease. We felt that wasn't a difficult thing to give," Skip Schloming, executive director of SPOA, told the News Service in August. "We always opposed the idea that they could never be evicted. That was the real problem."
Gallagher said Thursday that adding protections against eviction for victims of domestic violence would remain a goal, though there is no plan in place yet for pushing those protections into law. Gallagher said that while property owners might not specifically cite domestic violence as a reason for an eviction, they might evict because of property damage caused by domestic violence.
"All of us who worked on this bill feel that that is a very important provision," Gallagher said. "It is something that we still believe is an important tool for survivors."
The crimes that trigger protections in the bill are domestic violence, stalking, rape and sexual assault. Landlords are allowed to ask for proof of the crime, which can be given in the form of court record, restraining order or police report, or if the crime is verified by a law-enforcement official or medical or mental-health professional.
Gallagher said that Jane Doe's 60 affiliated programs have been paying close attention to the legislation and said that once the bill becomes law the work can begin to educate others on the new protections available to tenants who have been subjected to crimes such as sexual assault and domestic violence.
"I'm delighted that it finally passed. I have filed it for a number of years, and this was finally the year that it passed," said Rep. Ellen Story, a Democrat from Amherst.