Resident Can Raise VAWA Defense in Court to Prevent Eviction
Facts: Following nonpayment of rent, a local PHA served a subsidized housing resident with an eviction notice. On the hearing date, the parties entered into an agreement that suspended the eviction action on the condition that the resident make a fixed monthly payment for use and occupancy and for past rent due. The parties agreed that if the resident failed to adhere to the payment schedule, the PHA could revive the eviction action.
The resident subsequently failed to make the required payments under the agreement, and the PHA moved for an eviction. The PHA and resident then entered into an amended agreement with new payment terms. Over the course of the following three years, the parties entered into a total of five agreements for judgment, and each time, the resident failed to adhere to the agreed-upon payments.
After the resident violated the fifth agreement, the PHA filed for eviction. At the hearing, the resident stated that she was working with an agency to help pay the rent arrearage. And when asked by the judge why she had made only one payment since the date of the final agreement, the resident responded, “I was in an abus[ive] relationship. He would take everything from me. One day I decide[d] to stop that. I called the police on him. I’m … trying to deal with a restraining order, and now I’m trying to get back all my life together because I do not want to be in a relationship like that. He would take—I’ve lost everything already. I’m about to lose my apartment. I don’t want that.”
The judge then asked her if she had spoken to the property manager at any point about the abusive relationship after she signed the final agreement, to which she responded: “No. … I go in the office one time, but, after that, I tried to figure it out, like how I’m going to pay the rent and how I’m going to do all this.”
The judge allowed the PHA’s motion, finding that the resident’s failure to make the required payments set forth in the final agreement constituted a violation of a material term of the agreement and that the PHA had “acted reasonably and cannot be expected to do any more.” The judge made no reference to the resident’s statements regarding the alleged abusive relationship in his findings. The resident appealed.
Ruling: The Massachusetts Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court to determine whether the resident was entitled to federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) protections.
Reasoning: Under VAWA, “[a]n applicant for or tenant of housing assisted under a covered housing program may not be denied admission to, denied assistance under, terminated from participation in, or evicted from the housing on the basis that the applicant or tenant is or has been a victim of domestic violence.”
Where the applicant or tenant establishes that he or she is entitled to VAWA protection, the landlord is prohibited from evicting the tenant for any reason that is a direct result of the domestic violence, from denying the applicant or tenant’s admission to or assistance under the covered program, and from terminating the tenant’s participation in the covered program.
The court noted that HUD guidance requires an applicant or tenant to notify a landlord of the presence of domestic violence if he or she seeks VAWA protection. But the court stated that it’s not a prerequisite to raising VAWA as a defense to eviction in court and HUD’s guidance to owners and PHA’s isn’t binding on the courts.
Here, the resident didn’t raise the issue of domestic violence until she appeared in court for the hearing of her alleged breach of the fifth agreement for judgment, and when she did so, it wasn’t necessarily meant as a VAWA defense. However, neither the law nor the regulations address when or how a tenant must assert his or her rights under VAWA in an eviction action. Nor does VAWA require a particular threshold of proof to raise the defense. Thus, here, the resident’s statement at the hearing that she was in an abusive relationship and that her partner “would take everything” from her was not untimely. Further, her mention of domestic violence as a possible factor in her failure to make the required payments was a sufficient signal to the judge to inquire further to elicit additional facts in order to determine whether she was entitled to VAWA protection.
The court concluded that where a judge is given reason to believe that domestic violence is or might be relevant to a landlord’s basis for eviction, the judge must ensure that he or she has sufficient evidence to make a determination whether the tenant is entitled to VAWA protections, and such determination must be supported by findings. The resident may or may not be successful in using VAWA to prevent an eviction. Her success will depend on the circumstances surrounding the domestic violence she alleges and whether the judge finds that it contributed to her failure to make the agreed-upon payments.
- Boston Housing Authority v. Y.A., May 2019