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July 31, 2014

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New law helps victims make safe getaway from abusive relationships

Legislation signed this year lets domestic-violence victims break leases without penalty to start life anew

The realization came to her almost out of the blue as she was stirring awake one early August morning: It was time to go.

This woman, who asked not to be identified, left her apartment with the clothes on her back and her 6-year-old daughter. Nothing more.

Her abuser never let her keep a purse. He kept her birth certificate and driver’s license, instead doling out fake IDs as he forced her into prostitution.

“I’m slowly piecing my life together,” the 33-year-old woman says.

More than a month has passed since that fateful morning. On this September day, the woman and her daughter are living at Shade Tree, a shelter for women and children affected by homelessness or domestic violence.

The woman has a problem, though: The apartment she left was leased in her name.

A new law stands to help with that aspect of her life. The Nevada Legislature this year passed what is known as the “safe getaway law,” which allows for the early termination of rental agreements involving victims of domestic violence, under certain circumstances.

The law seeks to unburden domestic-violence victims from a common financial worry — breaking a lease — that often serves as a barrier preventing their escape.

Assemblywoman Lucy Flores of the 77th (2013) Nevada Assembly District.

Assemblywoman Lucy Flores of the 77th (2013) Nevada Assembly District.

Assemblyman Elliot T. Anderson of the 77th (2013) Nevada Assembly District.

Assemblyman Elliot T. Anderson of the 77th (2013) Nevada Assembly District.

Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores and Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, both D-Las Vegas, sponsored the bill, which won the Legislature’s approval, was signed into law by Gov. Brian Sandoval and went into effect July 1.

“It seems like it’s such a simple concept and yet it plays such a huge role in whether the victim can leave,” Flores said.

She’s speaking from experience. When she was in her early 20s, Flores left an abusive relationship but wound up losing more than $1,200 in the process when she broke two leases, the second of which occurred after the ex-boyfriend stalked and beat Flores at her new apartment.

Flores said her ex-boyfriend also poured bleach over a box of her clothing, ruining most of her belongings at a time when she had little financial means to start anew.

“It’s incredibly difficult to get your life back together after something like this,” Flores said.

The law allows domestic-violence victims to end their rental agreements by giving landlords written notice of termination, which would be effective either at the end of the rental period or 30 days after notice is provided, depending on what occurs sooner. The victim would be liable for rent only through the day of termination, according to the law.

Victims must give landlords proof by submitting one of three items: a copy of a protection order related to domestic violence; a copy of a written report from a law enforcement agency that indicates the person notified police about domestic violence; or a copy of a written affidavit signed by a qualified third party, such as a social worker or therapist, stating the renter is a victim of domestic violence.

The domestic violence that led to the termination of the rental agreement must have occurred within 90 days of giving written notice, the law states.

The landlord cannot withhold a security deposit solely on the basis of the domestic-violence victim breaking the lease.

UNLV Shade Tree

Shade Tree resident Kate Sahm, 33, and her daughter Kassidy Sahm, 7, walk from their bus into the Launch slideshow »

Marlene Richter, executive director of Shade Tree, considers the law a victory for domestic-violence victims, especially since many rental agreements are under the victims’ names — a common control tactic deployed by abusers.

“They’ve even gotten really savvy about how to control their victims financially and emotionally,” Richter said, referring to abusers. “So to be able to use this law to protect the victims and their future, that takes it to a whole different level.”

Not everyone is satisfied with the makeup of the new law, though. The Nevada State Apartment Association lobbied hard against the legislation during the 2013 session.

“Some people are using it for the wrong reasons, and that’s the tough part for my industry,” said Michael Fazio, the association’s executive director.

The association is tracking cases it suspects might involve misuse of the law — in other words, bogus claims of domestic violence by tenants. Fazio said the association would use that information to lobby the Legislature for changes in the law.

“We think it’s a great bill, but there are flaws in the bill, and we’re hoping to rectify that,” Fazio said.

Anderson said he was hopeful the law wouldn’t cause any negative impact to the rental industry, but he vowed to pay special attention to “how the mechanics of the bill work.”

Both Anderson and Flores pointed to Nevada’s high domestic violence numbers as proof of the law’s necessity.

Nevada spent three years atop a national ranking of how often women are killed by men before dropping to No. 16 among states this year. The new ranking, produced by the Violence Policy Center, is based on data from 2011.

Even as Nevada’s ranking dropped, Richter said Shade Tree has seen a recent surge in numbers.

The shelter’s population has historically consisted of about 75 percent homeless women and 25 percent domestic-violence victims, but that makeup is increasingly heading toward a 50-50 split, Richter said.

The shelter, which normally sees 4,000 women and children a year, served just shy of 6,000 in the recently completed fiscal year, she said.

“We knew we were busy, but when we finished out our fiscal year on June 30 and started running the statistics, that’s when we realized we’ve been in a marathon,” Richter said. “We’ve been in an absolute nonstop pace.”

People at schools, work places, health care centers and residential buildings can play a role in victims’ healing by being sensitive to their situations and rights, Richter said.

“Survivors of domestic violence need the support of the community, and this bill is one way that supports their rights,” she said.

As for the woman who fled her abuser and wound up at Shade Tree with her daughter, she’s planning to use the law and is grateful for the opportunity to start fresh. She hopes other victims come to the same realization.

“You can get out, and there are ways and agencies to help you,” she said. “I don’t think any woman or man or human should live in fear.”

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