Housing Instability and Domestic Violence: Preventing a survivor’s slide into homelessness

Women seeking a way out of violence in the domestic space require a range of supports. These supports should encompass the emotional, informational and tangible. One crucial form of tangible support is in the area of housing, an especially important concern for victims of domestic violence.  To escape their abusers, women need alternative housing or the ability to remain in their homes with the eviction of the abuser. Victims of domestic violence face numerous economic obstacles to obtaining and keeping housing.  Women who are financially dependent on their abusers and women whose abusers control their assets lack the economic means to leave their abusers without risking homelessness.

It has been noted that when women take steps to end their situation of domestic violence, there starts a cascade of events marking increasing housing instability that may end in homelessness.

There are subtle under-reported precursors to visible, documentable homelessness. Women who have moved out of an abusive home may ‘double up’ in the homes of relatives and friends, who may also become targets of violence as a result of sheltering their friend or relative. Doubling up and couch surfing are associated with over-crowding and attendant stress and frictions that may exacerbate existing trauma to the survivors of violence. In addition, those who offer temporary accommodation in this way are not necessarily above being exploitative of those who approach them for help and shelter.

It is misleading to say that women leave the violent home space as much as they are forced out of it. This is quite obvious when the targets of violence are evicted by landlords unwilling to have domestic violence in the rental unit and take steps to make the entire problem and all involved parties vanish.

For many years, women in living in federally-funded housing in the U.S. could be evicted along with their abusive partner for his criminal activity. But, this changed with the 2005 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) which prohibited public housing authorities from denying housing or evicting solely on the basis of domestic violence. In 2013, this protection was expanded to include other federally-subsidized programs. In many parts of the world, ideas about property rights can make it difficult for a woman to evict an abusive partner, particularly if the abuser’s name is on the lease or deed to the property. In Ukraine, the Constitution’s provision for the right to housing has been interpreted to protect the right of an abuser to remain in the home.

The Advocates for Human Rights. (2013) Domestic Violence and Housing. Link.

The structure of lease agreements is also a challenge. While a woman may have to flee the home to save her life, she may also incur penalties for violation of the lease terms if she is a lessee of the rental unit. Even if the woman is listed on the rental contract, the abuser may be listed as the principal tenant and the woman would have no locus standi to contact the landlord to re-negotiate the rental contract.

In this context, one may also explore the implications and limitations of Alberta’s Residential Tenancies (Safer Spaces for Victims of Domestic Violence) Amendment Act, 2015, which took effect on August 8, 2016. According to this Act, a tenant who can submit evidence of suffering abuse can seek early release from tenancy without financial penalty. If a threshold requirement of fear of violence is is met, ‘the victim may terminate their tenancy by giving the landlord 28 days’ notice and a certificate confirming there are grounds for the termination no later than 90 days after the certificate is issued by the designated authority (section 47.3(2)). This 28 day notice period would apply to all types of tenancies,  including monthly periodic tenancies, yearly periodic tenancies and fixed term tenancies’ (Koshan et al 2015, p1).

Tenants need to show their landlord a certificate issued by a designated authority verifying that they are at risk and confirming that domestic violence exists as grounds for early termination of the tenancy. The application for a certificate may be made by either the victim or by someone acting on their behalf with their consent. Getting the certificate requires the tenant to provide the Ministry of Human Services with an emergency protection order, a peace bond or a letter from a certified professional (e.g physicians, nurses, social workers, psychologists, police officers, shelter workers, and victim support workers) confirming that the tenant and their children and/or ‘protected’ adult relatives in that residence are facing abuse and violence (protected adult” including assisted adults, represented adults, or supported adults as defined in the Adult Guardianship and Trustee Act, SA 2008, c A-4.2.) (Koshan et al 2015, p1).

The Residential Tenancies (Safer Spaces for Victims of Domestic Violence) Amendment Act, 2015, is a promising development, at least lowering financial barriers that keep people locked into abusive domestic situations. There are, however, quite a few questions: what of the barriers that keep abused persons from initiating or continuing the processes of contacting the authorities, filing complaints, and compiling the evidence and the paperwork needed to get that certificate allowing them to end the tenancy? What are the measures to ensure that landlords understand the legislative change and comply with it? Will women of limited English, traumatized and isolated, clearly understand the process? Where will the abused spouse and her children and dependent adult relatives go after the termination of tenancy (the shelter situation being what it is)? What is the probability of the abused person being able to pay the rent for the 28 days notice period?

Abuse impacts employability, credit history and housing

In many cases, women are unable to pay either rent or penalties for breach of contract because they may have no independent income and no access to finances (related to the fact that they may be financially as well as physically abused). Many abused women may not have jobs and related income because (1) their abuser may prevent them from seeking employment (2) may create disruptions at the worksite leading to the woman’s dismissal (3) or through constant violence erode a woman’s productivity and ability to focus to the point that the women are let go.

The inability to work as well as job loss are circularly related to unstable housing and to the many disruptions caused by the abuser. Immigrant women may not be hired because of their lack of documentation (often withheld illegally by abusers as a means of control) and their lack of language and experience. Employability and access to housing are further diminished by time spent out of the workforce and by prior dismissals. Compounding the situation, women may have a criminal record as a result of actions taken to physically defend themselves against their abuser or due to false charges filed by the abuser.

Abuse thus simultaneously affects a woman’s employability, work and credit history, and her prospects on housing applications. Bad credit relates to past inability to pay rent, past evictions, criminal record, lack of employment and to future inability to get housing loans or approval on rental applications. One must take note here of the reality of housing discrimination by prospective landlords who scrutinize the bad credit and past criminal record and reject applications without bothering to examine the matter further.

At the systemic level, there are enduring shortages of transitional housing and affordable long-term public housing. In addition, women may be ill at ease uncomfortable with the conditions of stay in transitional housing e.g. mandatory enrolment in language and counselling programs may carry deeply negative associations and triggers for women who have left situations of coercion, control and command.


Access to safe and affordable longer-term housing is a critical form of tangible support for survivors of domestic violence. Access to housing is necessary to (1) decrease economic hardship (2) enable survivors to focus on vital needs such as healthcare and employment (3) protect survivors from revictimization while they are still struggling with rehabilitation.

When it comes to housing, supports start with risk assessment to decide whether or not women can stay or can return to their homes. When women leave the home, the next steps are to identify shelters that have extended stays that allow for the resolution of complicated situations (e.g. immigration) as women prepare for independent living. Advocacy and intensive case management are needed to assist women to access financial supports and to obtain employment, as well as to find affordable and safe accommodation. The case worker must compile and share information about safe and affordable housing options (e.g. rapid re-housing strategies for low-risk cases, housing subsidies) and support women to access these options.

Advocacy and reconnection are crucial to ensure that women not only obtain housing but are able to retain housing. Case workers must be trained to act as intermediaries who can reach out to landlords to facilitate access to affordable housing, advocate on behalf of women seeking housing, perform some measure of education to landlords about the effects of abuse on employment and credit history, and maintain and strengthen relationships between clients and the landlords.

What is Adequate Housing?

Adequate housing requires the availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure, including access to water and sanitation; heating, cooling, and lighting; energy; washing facilities; food storage and refuse disposal; as well as emergency services.

Adequate housing requires thoughtful location to allow access to employment options, health-care services, schools, childcare centres and other social facilities.

Adequate housing must be affordable. Since affordability will differ for women and men in many contexts, it is important to take into account the gender disparity in income and access to financial resources, and to prioritize the allocation of social or public housing to those who are unable to meet the cost of housing.

Adequate housing requires accessibility to all groups of women.  Housing law, policy and programmes must reflect the needs of women who may be especially disadvantaged and who encounter intersectional discrimination, including widows, elderly women, lesbians, homeless women, migrant women, women with disabilities, women who may be single mothers or single heads of households, women living with or otherwise affected by chronic illnesses such as HIV/AIDS and mental health disorders, women belonging to racial/ethnic/linguistic minorities, domestic workers, sex workers, illiterate women and women who have been displaced.

Adequate housing requires that women have security of tenure through legal protection against forced eviction, harassment or threats.

Gierman, T., & Liska, A. (2013) Shelter for Women and Girls at Risk of or Survivors of Violence. Link. (p276)

Useful reading

Baker, C. K., Billhardt, K. A., Warren, J., Rollins, C., & Glass, N. E. (2010). Domestic violence, housing instability, and homelessness: A review of housing policies and program practices for meeting the needs of survivors. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15(6), 430-439. Link.

Baker, C. K., Cook, S. L., & Norris, F. H. (2003). Domestic violence and housing problems: A contextual analysis of women’s help-seeking, received informal support, and formal system response. Violence Against Women, 9(7), 754-783. Link.

 Baker, C. K., Niolon, P. H., & Oliphant, H. (2009). A descriptive analysis of transitional housing programs for survivors of intimate partner violence in the United States. Violence Against Women, 15(4), 460-481. Link.

Clough, A., Draughon, J. E., Njie-Carr, V., Rollins, C., & Glass, N. (2014). ‘Having housing made everything else possible’: Affordable, safe and stable housing for women survivors of violence. Qualitative Social Work, 13(5), 671-688. Link.

 Correia, A., & Rubin, J. (2001). Housing and battered women. Link.

Daoud, N., Matheson, F. I., Pedersen, C., Hamilton-Wright, S., Minh, A., Zhang, J., & O’Campo, P. (2016). Pathways and trajectories linking housing instability and poor health among low-income women experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV): Toward a conceptual framework. Women & Health, 56(2), 208-225. Link.

Gander, L., & Johansson, R. (2014) The Hidden Homeless: Residential Tenancies Issues of Victims of Domestic Violence. Link.

Gierman, T., & Liska, A. (2013) Shelter for Women and Girls at Risk of or Survivors of Violence. Link.

Jategaonkar, N., & Ponic, P. (2011). Unsafe & Unacceptable Housing: Health & Policy Implications for Women Leaving Violent Relationships. Link.

Keseredy, W. S., Alvi, S., Schwartz, M. D., & Perry, B. (1999). Violence against and the harassment of women in Canadian public housing: An exploratory study. Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue canadienne de sociologie, 36(4), 499-516. Link.

Lapidus, L. M. (2003). Doubly Victimized: Housing Discrimination Against Victims of Domestic Violence. Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law, 11(2), 8. Link.

Legislative Assembly Of Alberta. (2015) Bill 204: Residential Tenancies (Safer Spaces For Victims Of Domestic Violence) Amendment Act, 2015. Link

Martin, E. J., & Stern, N. S. (2004). Domestic violence and public and subsidized housing: Addressing the needs of battered tenants through local housing policy. Clearinghouse Rev., 38, 551. Link.

Melbin, A., Sullivan, C. M., & Cain, D. (2003). Transitional supportive housing programs: Battered women’s perspectives and recommendations. Affilia, 18(4), 445-460. Link.

Miller, K. L., & Du Mont, J. (2000). Countless abused women: Homeless and inadequately housed. Canadian woman studies, 20(3), 115. Link.

Moe, A. M., & Bell, M. P. (2004). Abject economics: The effects of battering and violence on women’s work and employability. Violence Against Women, 10(1), 29-55. Link.

Rollins, J. H., Saris, R. N., & Johnston‐Robledo, I. (2001). Low‐Income Women Speak out About Housing: A High‐Stakes Game of Musical Chairs. Journal of Social Issues, 57(2), 277-298. Link.

Wright, B. R. E., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., & Silva, P. A. (1998). Factors associated with doubled-up housing—a common precursor to homelessness. Social Service Review, 72(1), 92-111. Link.

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