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Protecting Victims of Domestic Abuse

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After years of abuse, Judith finally separated from her husband. In retaliation, he broke into her apartment, wrote obscenities on the walls, tore apart furniture, and smeared excrement all over Judith's belongings. The following week, the property manager of Judith's apartment building told her she was being evicted for damaging the unit. Even after learning what happened, the manager still evicted Judith and her baby from the apartment.

Judith's experience is not unique. Across the state, domestic violence victims face eviction for the disturbances that result from their abuse. Landlords have relied upon the nuisance clause of standard rental agreements to evict victims and their families. The problem with this practice is that, in addition to suffering abuse, when they lose their homes, domestic violence victims are pushed further into isolation and instability. In California, domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness for women and families. The children of evicted victims suffer perhaps the greatest consequences, including trauma, poor school performance, and other health and social issues.

When victims lose their homes, this also presents difficulties for law enforcement trying to maintain contact with victims and prosecute abusers. The victims are lost to the streets and the perpetrators remain at large. If victims are homeless or transient, it is much less likely that they will participate in the criminal case against their abuser. Victims also cannot get District Attorney Victim Services - services that are vital to establishing their safety and stability. Stable housing for victims is an important public safety issue.

For these reasons, in 2007, I joined with San Francisco Supervisor Carmen Chu to sponsor city legislation to prohibit landlords from evicting domestic violence victims. With support from both domestic violence service providers and property owners, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to prohibit tenant evictions when those evictions arise from incidents of domestic violence.

Shortly after this legislation was instated, State Senator Leland Yee (D- San Francisco) saw the wisdom in the law and decided to replicate it statewide. In 2008, Yee introduced SB 782 to prohibit tenant evictions if the eviction is based on incidents of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. The bill also allows landlords to change the locks on a unit if the victim tenant makes that request after obtaining an emergency protective order. After a two year push, Governor Schwarzenegger just signed this legislation into law.

This new state law is a significant victory for domestic violence victims. Recognizing the economic climate we face today, relief could not have come at a more important time. Now more than ever, we need to protect vulnerable residents and keep them in their homes. Across the state, families are losing their jobs, losing their homes, and increasingly unable to bounce back from economic hardships. As shelters fill up and funding for services become more strained, domestic violence victims are finding it harder and harder to recover from losing a place to live.

The signing of SB 782 puts California in leadership across the nation. This law recognizes that vulnerable victims need the law on their side. With SB 782, domestic violence victims no longer have to risk losing their stability and their homes when they suffer abuse. This is good for public safety, good for the economy, and good for families.

Kamala Harris is the District Attorney of San Francisco, and the Democratic nominee for California Attorney General.

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