Testimony by New York Legal Assistance Group before the New York City Council, Committee on Public Housing: Oversight – Evaluation of the Victim of Domestic Violence Need-Based Preference Category and Support and Services for Victims of Domestic Violence in NYCHA Developments

October 14, 2014

Chair Ritchie Torres, Council Members, and staff, thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony regarding the New York City Housing Authority’s (hereinafter “NYCHA”) policies and rules relating to victims of domestic violence. The New York Legal Assistance Group is a nonprofit civil legal services office dedicated to providing free legal services to low-income New Yorkers. NYLAG serves immigrants, seniors, the homebound, families facing foreclosure or eviction, low-income consumers, those in need of government assistance, children in need of special education, domestic violence victims, persons with disabilities, patients with chronic illness or disease, low-wage workers, low-income members of the LGBT community, as well as others in need of free legal services. NYLAG’s Matrimonial and Family Law Unit prioritizes its services for victims of domestic violence.

We are very excited about and would like to commend both the Council’s and NYCHA’s willingness to hear from domestic violence advocates about ways to improve services within NYCHA. NYCHA’s current rules and regulations regarding domestic violence are complex and vary depending on whether someone is applying for housing, seeking a transfer to another development, or is seeking a Section 8 transfer.

It is well known that addressing domestic violence involves a coordinated community response. The increase in domestic violence reports in NYCHA developments needs to be addressed not only by NYCHA itself, but by putting mechanisms in place that allow for a coordinated strategy with NYPD, District Attorney’s offices, civil legal service providers, advocates and social service providers. Additionally, discussions surrounding domestic violence and housing need to be viewed in context, and with the understanding that some of the problems faced by domestic violence victims/survivors are connected to other issues at NYCHA, such as who has the right to a lease, general security issues, relations with police, or treatment of tenants by NYCHA staff. Therefore, revisions to NYCHA policies should be made with the input from domestic violence advocates, who can shed light on some of the dynamics complicating these issues. For these reasons, NYCHA has reached out and NYLAG appreciated the invitation to NYCHA’s recent roundtable on this subject and hopes to continue participating in those meetings.

We would like to emphasize the need for flexibility when assisting domestic violence victims because each situation, including the dangers faced by the victim, the proof of violence available, and the level of fear experienced, is different. Accordingly, more credence should be given to the victim’s own assessment of the level of danger they face in order to account for these differences. Further, reliance on proof from the criminal justice system is misguided and antithetical to the nature and dynamics of domestic violence – for many, particularly immigrant, persons of color and LGBT victims, it remains a private matter. According to the NYC Fatality Review Commission, the victim had no prior contact with the criminal justice system in the majority of DV fatalities in NYC.

For example, NYCHA’s current policy requiring victims to show at least two incidents of violence within one year before being eligible for a transfer is misguided. Recently, one of NYLAG’s clients received an emergency DV housing transfer to another borough. Her abuser found her, broke in to the apartment several times and continues to threaten her, such that she needs yet another transfer. She is encountering difficulties because she lacks proof of incidents of violence, which included destruction of her car and breaking and into her home, because she never saw her abuser commit these acts. She was unable to demonstrate to the police that it was her abuser who broke in so the reports do not identify him as the perpetrator and no arrest has been made. Her abuser was previously convicted of manslaughter and although his propensity for violence certainly puts her at risk, it is not considered under current regulations.

A comprehensive individual risk assessment made by designated, qualified domestic violence service providers would be a more accurate and comprehensive solution to prioritizing DV cases for housing.

In the meantime, we urge NYCHA to expand the list of crimes that allow for a DV priority to be assigned to a housing or transfer application to include such categories as aggravated harassment, harassment and criminal mischief. Over the last decade the NYS Legislature has expanded the Penal Code to include several new crimes, including Stalking. The Legislature also amended Article Eight of the Family Court Act to include additional family offenses including criminal mischief, sex crimes and aggravated harassment. NYCHA needs to update its rules consistent with these amendments and expand the list of crimes included to qualify for priority. Most domestic violence is considered misdemeanor level crime – the pattern of abuse used to control a victim doesn’t always rise to the level of a felony. Harassment may sound benign but it encompasses much of the behavior abusers use to control their victim – it includes striking, shoving and kicking or threatening to do so. In New York State, unless the victim suffers impairment of a physical condition or substantial pain the crime doesn’t rise to an assault, thus harassment is a frequent charge in DV cases. Property damage and telephone contact are other tools abusers rely on to control their victim. When an abuser cuts up a victim’s clothing, smashes their cell phone and calls repeatedly at work until the victim loses a job — all common behaviors–they can be charged with criminal mischief or aggravated harassment. All these domestic violence crimes need to be added to the list for priority as well.

Additionally, the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) survivors of domestic violence, or intimate partner violence, is all too often over looked. Statistics show that LGBT people experience domestic violence at the same rate as their heterosexual counterparts1. Despite the similar rates of abuse, LGBT victims and survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence face discrimination when seeking out assistance. Many authorities, ranging from the police to court personnel, lack knowledge about how domestic violence impacts LGBT people. As a result, LGBT individuals are frequently turned away by the police when trying to file a police report alleging domestic violence. For example, one of NYLAG’s clients shared a NYCHA apartment with her partner (they were not married, but both were NYCHA tenants of record). On one occasion, the abuser threw herself on top of our client and beat her and broke her ankle. The police were called, but as is often the case, the abuser spoke to the police first and accused the victim of being the perpetrator. Presumably because they were a same sex couple, the police made no arrest even though our client was severely injured and it was clear who the aggressor was regardless of gender. Our client wanted to leave the apartment for her own NYCHA apartment, but NYCHA presented her with two difficult options: the first was to surrender her NYCHA tenancy and then apply for NYCHA DV priority, or remain in the apartment and request a transfer. The client was reluctant to give up her apartment because if she was not approved for DV priority, she risked homelessness. If she chose to remain in the apartment and request a transfer, she was told this might take a long time and she did not feel safe continuing to reside in the apartment while awaiting a transfer.

In sum, NYLAG suggests the following:

1. giving more credence to the victim’s fear;
2. developing a coordinated community response;
3. designating certain agencies to conduct risk assessments in lieu of requiring police contact;
4. expanding the list of qualifying crimes;
5. reducing the requirement of two incidents;
6. modifying the one year bar on reapplying for a transfer if a transfer is not effectuated properly the first time;
7. reassessing the current zip code exclusion policy for DV transfers and housing applications to either be a smaller exclusionary zone or to allow for exceptions based on the assessment of individual situations;
8. obtaining additional security cameras in all the developments;
9. appointing a DV Liaison at NYCHA whom advocates can contact directly and/or assigning a NYCHA DV staff person in all developments;
10. making NYCHA’s rules and procedures available online so advocates know how to advise their clients;
11. more training and resources are needed to ensure that all victims of domestic violence, including immigrant and LGBT victims, can safely access help and resources, including the urgent need to seek for housing within NYCHA.

We would welcome the opportunity to further discuss or comment on these matters in the future. Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on this critical subject.

Respectfully submitted,

Kim Susser, Director, Matrimonial & Family Law Unit
Kamilla Sjödin, Associate Director, Housing Law

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1 One out of four to one out of three same-sex relationships has experienced domestic. See http://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/domestic_violence.pdf. See also violence. http://www.rohrbaughassociates.net/pdfs/same_sex.pdf.