Many of the survivors who arrive at YWCA Utah’s doors are often facing several issues that have become barriers in their lives, and the lives of their children. One of the most prominent issues being access to, and barriers created by, housing. Utah’s Domestic Violence Lease Termination Statute has made attempts to remove some of these barriers by creating a mechanism which allows survivors of domestic violence to terminate the rental agreement they have with abusive partners, or agreements that require them to remain in a location the abusive partner is far too familiar with. The initial creation of the statute however came with limitations in how survivors will be able to utilize it. One of the most apparent limitations of the statute is the requirement of survivors to pay 45 days of rent the very day they notify their landlords of wanting to move forward with a lease termination.
This requirement is a significant barrier for survivors who are by and large experiencing economic disadvantages and are unable to pay in such short notice. As Ally Anderson, a YWCA Utah Lead Case Manager states, “even if survivors did know about the statute, the overwhelming majority of YWCA Utah’s participants would not be able to utilize it, they don’t have 45 days of rent upfront when they are in crisis mode and fleeing for safety”. The financial obligation of the statute fails to understand financial abuse as a significant aspect of domestic violence. As Marcus Degen, an attorney who has worked closely defending survivors as they try to navigate the legal system, states “it is fairly well established that abusers are effective in maintaining abusive cycles by keeping their partners that they are abusing tethered to them financially”. Degen continues by stating the role lease agreements have in such financial dependence, “if survivors were already struggling from financial independence from their abuser, having debt is only going to be an impediment to them maintaining financial independence from the abusive individuals”.
In addition to the financial limitations, the statute’s requirements include documentation of domestic violence a survivor faces. This documentation process requires heavy trust in the legal system on the part of the survivor, as Anderson continues, “survivors who come from marginalized communities have a lot of justified distrust of police and the legal system, so survivors avoid the documentation process in fear of experiencing further harm”. This fear of experiencing further harm either financially, or by the legal system, makes the statute counterintuitive to its aimed goals. Brian Rothschild, Chairman of People’s Legal Aid, expressed “domestic violence survivors are looking for a fresh start…this statute is an integral part of helping survivors with that fresh start but the problem is it’s difficult to take advantage of the statute and doesn’t do what it is supposed to do”.
These barriers to the statute however do not come without solutions to fixing them, amending the statute in a way that allows for all survivors to utilize it, and gain independence from their abusers. Anderson speaks on the necessary ways of changing the statute, “I would love to see there no longer be a requirement for survivors to have to pay anything to flee to safety, I would also like to see more options for proof a survivor can provide other than a police report or protective order”. In conversation with the individuals working closely with survivors who were interviewed, and their experiences engaging in such work on the ground, it is clear that housing and financial burdens are significant struggles for survivors trying to receive justice. It is also clear from these conversations that the answer to removing such burdens requires the will of policy makers to fight for survivors, and promote the empowerment of all marginalized people towards a more equitable society.