“Housing vouchers are like gold,” says Legal Aid Staff Attorney Dorinda Wider. “There’s nothing more valuable to a low-income tenant. The waiting list is years long.”
Gigi came home from work one day and found that her husband had packed up all of her stuff and given notice to her landlord. He basically kidnapped her, forcing her to go with him to another apartment. He controlled the mail, tracked all of Gigi’s movements through her phone, and kept her locked in the basement.
When Gigi finally escaped months later, she no longer had a home. She spoke to the housing agency about what had happened, hoping to use her voucher for a new apartment. She explained that she had never seen the agency’s termination notices, and had no way to investigate or reply. They told her it was too late – her voucher had been terminated. She came to Legal Aid for help.
The housing vouchers use funds from Housing & Urban Development (HUD) to ensure that the holder pays only 30 percent of their income to rent. The HUD funds are administered by local housing agencies. In 2017, HUD issued new guidance regarding the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The new VAWA guidance directs housing agencies to think broadly about the effects of domestic violence, taking into account emotional manipulation, threats and economic consequences.
“It wasn’t difficult to see the connection between domestic violence and Gigi’s loss of her housing voucher,” says Wider. “Domestic violence is not just about getting hit. HUD is asking housing agencies to work with a deeper understanding of the effects of domestic violence. It’s good guidance.”
Wider asked the housing agency to reinstate Gigi’s voucher pursuant to VAWA. She directed their attention to the law, and to Gigi’s documented history of domestic violence victimization and police records of abuse.
“If someone’s voucher disappears, domestic violence and housing advocates should take another look,” Wider says. “Remind the housing provider that their funder, HUD, is telling them to take that broad look at domestic violence.”
At best, Wider was hoping the housing agency would put Gigi’s name on a waiting list for a voucher. To everyone’s surprise, they immediately gave Gigi a voucher. In the settlement, Gigi had to agree that she would never add the abusive husband to her voucher or lease, and that she would call the police if he came to her door.
In Gigi’s opinion, that agreement was a “no-brainer.” Legal Aid is now representing her in divorce proceedings, and she is on her way to being completely free from the abusive relationship.
“HUD’s understanding of VAWA is a holistic one, with an eye on the many ways domestic violence can destabilize a household,” says Wider. “Legal Aid is committed to protecting the housing rights of women who suffer from domestic violence and helping them retain those precious housing vouchers so they can move ahead with their lives.”
Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid provides free civil legal advice and representation to Minnesotans who cannot afford an attorney. Legal Aid serves people with low incomes in 20 counties and people with disabilities statewide.