When Clarabelle Alfeo escaped her abusive marriage, she thought she could start over. She got a protective order to keep her husband at bay and a Section 8 rental voucher to move her family out of their Brooklyn home. But she soon found herself embroiled in a “huge, time-consuming and degrading ordeal that lasted half a year”: finding a new apartment.
Alfeo was turned away by landlord after landlord—all of whom accepted Section 8 vouchers but refused to rent to a victim of domestic abuse. Rental agents told her she was “the worst-case scenario for a landlord,” she recalled at a recent City Council hearing. “Someone with a Section 8 voucher and an abusive husband.”
New York City expedites Section 8 applications for abuse victims, but the city code has done little to protect the victims, generally women, from housing discrimination. Even if women don’t tell their landlords, advocates say, most know that Section 8 has become nearly impossible to get unless you are homeless or a survivor of abuse.
To prevent bias, Councilmember David Yassky of Brooklyn has proposed a landmark bill that would prohibit landlords, including the city itself, from denying housing “on the basis of actual or perceived status as a victim of domestic violence or a victim of sex offenses or stalking.” Landlords must also make “reasonable accommodation” for victims who are already tenants.
If passed, the bill will complete a three-part series of anti-discrimination legislation Yassky began pushing when he entered the council two years ago. The two laws already passed extend workplace protections to domestic violence survivors and prohibit their abusers from purchasing weapons.
This is familiar terrain for Yassky. Back in his days as an aide to then-congressmember Charles Schumer, Yassky helped pen the federal Violence Against Women Act.
While the new bill sounds like a no-brainer, a similar provision was cut out of proposed legislation last year under pressure from the Bloomberg administration. At Wednesday’s hearing, Clifford Mulqueen, a deputy commissioner at the city’s Human Rights Commission, testified that the bill could put a disproportionate burden on the city’s Housing Authority and other low-income housing providers by allowing domestic violence victims to break leases without paying rent arrears.
Still, Yassky and other council members are confident that the criticism can be dealt with through adjustments to the bill. If not, he said, thousands could be in danger. According to council stats, the NYPD received 24,000 reports of domestic violence last year, and 7,000 in just the first quarter of 2004.
One victim, Linda—who does not want her real name used—was assaulted by her husband in their public housing unit. He was arrested, but when she informed the Housing Authority of her protective order against him, they evicted the whole family.
The committee has not yet scheduled a vote on whether to move the bill to full council, though Yassky expects some action to be taken this summer.