Pennsylvania Tenants Who Are Survivors of Domestic Violence Need State Lawmakers to Finally Pass Reforms to Protect Them

Democratic Representative Lisa A. Borowski is working on a bill that would provide “the option to terminate a lease [early] and the ability to change the locks or means of entry to a housing unit” to help protect survivors.
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Victims and survivors of domestic violence face many difficult choices, not the least of which is choosing between staying in an abusive relationship or homelessness. Housing is one of the biggest challenges domestic violence survivors face. 

State Representative Lisa A. Borowski is trying to do something about this. She wants to pass legislation so housing is not an obstacle to leaving an abusive relationship. 

In April of last year, the Delaware County Democrat proposed an Act to House members amending The Landlord and Tenant Act of 1951, providing for tenants’ rights in cases of violence. 

“My legislation would provide new protections for tenants who are victims of violence by giving these individuals the option to terminate a lease and the ability to change the locks or means of entry to a housing unit,” Borowski wrote. “This bill would ensure that victims have options and resources available to them when trying to end a violent relationship.” 

Borowski said during a phone interview that she is championing the bill to give victims an opportunity to heal and move forward. “For victims of domestic abuse and other forms of violence, one of the best ways to try to heal and move forward is to get out of the situation or the living arrangement where the acts might have taken place,” she said. “That’s the best way to shield mentally and to move forward.”

Borowski is working closely with the victims’ advocates as well as supporters of landlords and the apartment owners so that they can get to a place on legislation where they can achieve their main goal, which is to support victims and also make sure that landlords and the apartment owners have some protections and some due process as well.

She said the victims’ advocates have been responsive in working with the landlord groups. “I want to make sure whatever we move to the House floor is going to have the best chance of making it through, because there’s no reason to do the legislation if it’s not going to make it through,” said Borowski. “If we can come to a good place, besides making some concessions, but ultimately achieve our goal, then I think that’s a formula for some really good legislation.”

No one is lobbying against it. 

“All of the interested parties are at the table having the conversations,” she said. “Are we necessarily all going to end up agreeing on every single thing? Probably not, but we are having those conversations and have all the parties at the table.”

It will give these individuals the option to terminate a lease within a set timeframe. “Originally it was supposed to be 15 days,” Borowski said. “They would provide notification and break the lease. One of the original concessions was 30 days. It’s a notification process. There is an affidavit that they would need for the police to provide about the nature of the situation or they’d have to be working with a victim’s advocate group.” 

Borowski has worked in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape to guarantee that this bill is inclusive and respectful towards the needs of victims.

Both the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have drawn attention to the fact that domestic violence often leads to homelessness for survivors.   

Domestic violence incidents in the United States also saw a spike in the months following the Covid pandemic lockdown orders in 2020 with an increase of 8.1 percent, according to a 2021 report released by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, a group launched by the Council on Criminal Justice. 

Legal Aid of Southeastern PA (LASP) provides free help for civil legal issues related to someone’s status as a victim of domestic violence in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties.

“Housing issues are one of the biggest collateral consequences of domestic violence, and we often encounter them in our work with victims at LASP,” said Kimberly Hollenback, LASP VOCA Supervising Attorney and Media Office Managing Attorney. “While certain counties or areas in PA have local ordinances to protect victims in private housing (ex. In Philadelphia, victims can terminate a lease early by giving their landlord 30 days written notice), the areas we serve, including Bucks, do not have those same protections. These are really tough conversations with our clients, as your protection seemingly depends upon your zip code. There are often no legal arguments we can make, and instead have to rely on emotional ones.”

LASP has had more success in public/subsidized housing since there are federal protections under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). For example, Hollenback said recently in Delaware County they were able to negotiate a withdrawal of an eviction for a client who was evicted due to repeated police activity at her apartment, and also got the process started on porting her voucher elsewhere so her abuser doesn’t know where she lives.          

“Our clients are faced daily with impossible choices. They can stay in an abusive relationship or flee a lease or home and possibly deal with an eviction on their record, or foreclosure, or utility problem,” added Hollenback.

In Bucks County, LASP collaborates with the Bucks County Bar Association and the Courts to ensure that everyone appearing in Protection from Abuse (PFA) court has an attorney. 

LASP represents victims of domestic violence every Wednesday at the Bucks County Justice Center in Doylestown. LASP’s services are free. “LASP staff and pro bono attorneys obtained 402 PFAs for Bucks County residents in calendar year 2023 and have obtained 152 to date in 2024,” said Marion Hoffman Fraley, Communications Director for LASP. “In fiscal year 2022-23 (July 1, 2022-June 30, 2023), LASP made 393 PFA court appearances and handled 417 cases. LASP also assists victims with other civil legal problems related to their abuse, such as child custody.”

Crucial funding for LASP’s representation of domestic abuse victims comes through federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funding that is administered by the PA Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD). Fraley said reductions in the federal VOCA funds have resulted in decreased funding for legal services for domestic abuse victims throughout the state, including in Bucks County.

As of April 2024, Borowski’s bill was still on the table. But she claims it is not languishing. 

“Just today we got back some information on an amendment,” she said. “Because we do have all of the interested parties at the table, if everyone was willing to come to the table, then let’s do what we can to make it the very best legislation.” 

But time is not on the side of Pennsylvanians stuck in abusive relationships, and lives actually depend on speedier resolution.

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Erin Flynn Jay

Erin Flynn Jay is a freelance reporter based in Philadelphia. Recent national writing includes First for Women, Woman's World Magazine, Bar & Restaurant News, and World Tea News.

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