Safe Homes Act lets tenants end leases

By Whitney Blair Wyckoff

The Safe Homes Act, which took effect at the beginning of the year, will allow victims of domestic or sexual assault to leave their rental housing before their lease runs out if there is potential for a subsequent attack.

Esther Patt, coordinator of the Tenant Union, a resource center in the Illini Union for students renting apartments, said that while the law does not affect a large number of people, there has been a need for a law that better protects victim rights.

“Over the years, there have been a large number of cases of people assaulted in their apartments, parking lots or laundry rooms,” she said.

Pat Morey, director of the Office of Women’s Programs, who has worked on behalf of victims who want to get out of leases, said that in the past she has handled two or three cases a year involving a victim trying to get out of a lease.

Patt also emphasized that domestic violence is not only between a man and a woman; it can exist in a homosexual couple or between roommates not involved in a romantic relationship. She said that if one roommate beats up another roommate, this act would apply.

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To qualify for this act, the victim must write a note three days before or after the attack to the building’s landlord stating there is an “imminent threat” for another attack. The victim does not need to submit any additional proof of an attack. However, if a landlord takes a victim to court to collect rent, a victim needs to be able to produce evidence backing the victim’s claim such as a police report, medical records, court records or a statement from a victim service organization.

The tenant must also give the note to the building landlord within 60 days of the attack. If a tenant cannot make that deadline because they are hospitalized from the attack, the tenant must send the note to the landlord as soon as possible.

“Terminating a lease can be used in extensive cases or when a victim can no longer support the lease,” said Heather Fox, director of A Woman’s Place, 1304 E. Main St., in Urbana. A Woman’s Place offers legal and medical aid, transitional housing, counseling and children’s programs for victims of sexual violence. It serves more than 700 victims each year, and 15 percent of those victims are somehow affiliated with the University.

A victim can also ask for a lock change under this act in cases of emergency. To do this, a victim must submit a request to the landlord and include evidence that the attacker is still a threat. Again, a police report, medical records, court records or a statement from a victim service organization may be used as proof.

Within 48 hours of receiving the request, the landlord must either change the locks or give the tenant permission to do so.

The previous standard of care was a 1983 law called the Domestic Violence Act. According to this law, if the abuser lives with the victim, it allows a victim to eject an abuser from the home.

However, the problem is that usually the victim wants to leave the home, Patt said. If the victim left before the lease ran out, the victim would still be liable to pay rent for the apartment.

Also, victims were only able to break a lease at a landlord’s discretion.

“Rarely was I able to be successful in getting a student removed from a lease,” Morey said, adding that if the renter had an empty property somewhere else on campus, “sometimes, they’d be good about relocating a student.”

Before the Safe Homes Act, Patt said a renter could only get out of a lease if either the property is unfit for human habitation and the city condemns the property, or if the utilities are under the landlord’s name and are shut off.

While Patt thinks the new law will benefit tenant rights, she said there is one shortcoming: The law does not provide for a clear separation of liabilities. This means if a woman is attacked in her apartment and wants to move out, all of her roommates would have to follow suit.

But she said the remaining roommates could negotiate with the landlord to see if they could each continue to pay the same amount of money they had each month. That way, if the victim has three roommates, the landlord will continue to receive 75 percent of the rent, rather than receive nothing for that space.

“The options the law gives tenants increases their bargaining power,” Patt said.

Patt, who worked to promote the act, said this is a giant step for tenant rights advocates.

“It’s so much more than what I thought it would be,” said Patt, who has seen tenant’s rights bills fail in the past. “I’m very glad it is finally a law.”

Local Resources for Sexual Assault or Domestic Violence Victims

The University Safe Place

  • A University safe house in a secure location
  • Service can be used by students, faculty, staff, visiting lecturers and spouses
  • Most work through local police or emergency dean program
  • Usually gets 20 visits per year
  • Call 217-840-2232 for more information. Call goes to a cell phone that is monitored daily.

A Woman’s Fund

  • 24-hour Rape Crisis Services hotline: 217-355-5203
  • Through A Woman’s Place, it offers legal and medical aid, transitional housing, counseling and children’s programs for victims of sexual violence in Champaign County
  • Domestic Violence Hotline: 217-384-4390
  • Sexual Assault Hotline: 217-355-5203

Office of Women’s Programs

  • Through UIUC
  • 217-333-3137
  • Offers support services and information