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Domestic-abuse victim says she was evicted for reporting crime

An Illinois woman's case reflects a growing concern that the federal Violence Against Women Act appears to leave out abuse victims who rent in the private market.

October 18, 2009|Sara Olkon

CHICAGO — Kathy Cleaves-Milan called police to report that her live-in boyfriend had brandished a gun and vowed to end both of their lives. Within days, her apartment managers served her with eviction papers for violating the terms of the lease, citing the criminal activity she had reported.

"I was punished for protecting myself and my daughter," Cleaves-Milan, 36, said. Her attorneys filed a lawsuit this month arguing that her 2007 eviction was a form of sex discrimination.

A representative of Aimco, the company that owned and operated the apartment complex, said the eviction wasn't solely about the domestic violence but also involved Cleaves-Milan's ability to afford the rent if her boyfriend moved out -- an assertion she strongly rejected.

The case reflects a growing concern among women's rights advocates that greater legal protection is needed for victims of domestic violence who rent in the private market. Under the federal Violence Against Women Act of 2005, victims who live in public or subsidized housing are protected from eviction because of actual or threatened violence. But the law is hazier when it comes to private landlords. Advocates say a lack of clear protection creates a disincentive for abused women to seek help.

"It forces women into a situation where they have to choose between reaching out for safety or staying in their homes," said Sandra Park, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project.

Police in Elmhurst, Ill., went to Elm Creek Apartments early on the morning of Sept. 30, 2007, after Cleaves- Milan reported that her boyfriend had threatened her. That day, Cleaves-Milan had a conversation with a leasing agent at the building about the incident, according to the lawsuit. She said the leasing agent arranged for her to rent a storage unit so she could move her estranged boyfriend's possessions out of her home.

On Oct. 2, Cleaves-Milan -- who had obtained a protective court order -- was told she could remain in the apartment with her daughter as long as she had proof of income, according to the lawsuit.

The next day, two days after her rent had been due, Cleaves-Milan said, she went to the bank to get a cashier's check for the rent and for the storage unit. When she called the leasing office to find out the total amount due, she said, she was told she was no longer welcome at the complex. Corporate officials had ruled her in violation of her lease because of the recent crime in her apartment.

"As the safety of our residents is our top priority, we have a zero-tolerance policy for any criminal activity at our communities," Aimco spokeswoman Cindy Duffy said.

At the apartment, a 10-day eviction notice signed by an Elm Creek official was taped to Cleaves-Milan's door. She said she and her daughter moved out Oct. 6, 2007.

Duffy said recently that Cleaves-Milan could have stayed longer if she had chosen to fight the eviction.

But ultimately, she said, the company's policy was clear: "If there is an arrest or a violation, all of the occupants on that lease are subject to eviction," she said.

"The basis for that eviction was the fact the violence had occurred," Duffy said.

She maintained that Cleaves-Milan left the complex because she could not afford to remain there without her boyfriend's financial support, adding that the staff tried to find her a less-expensive unit in the complex. "It certainly wasn't our attempt to penalize her in any way for her situation," Duffy said.

Cleaves-Milan, who worked in medical equipment sales, said Duffy's response about income being a factor was "simply untrue." "My reason for being evicted was there was gun violence in my home," she said.

Kate Walz, one of the attorneys representing Cleaves- Milan, said policies that punish victims of domestic violence lend credence to the still-common assumption that victims encourage the abuse.

"She did everything right," Walz said, referring to the call for help and subsequent petition for an order of protection.

Cleaves-Milan's is one of a small number of private tenancy cases involving domestic violence that have made their way into the court system, said Maya Raghu, senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum, formerly the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

In 1985, New York passed a law making it illegal for a landlord to refuse to rent to a victim of domestic violence. Other states began to follow suit with similar statutes designed to safeguard the economic status of abuse victims.

In Illinois, the 2007 Safe Homes Act permits a domestic-abuse victim to terminate a lease early or request a lock change. An amendment to the Illinois Human Rights Act that goes into effect next year will prohibit discrimination against a person who has obtained an order of protection.

In other states, including Minnesota and Colorado, laws prohibit a landlord from evicting a victim of domestic abuse because he or she has called the police.

Cleaves-Milan, for one, said it had never occurred to her that a call to the police could send her packing. She said she hopes her case raises awareness for other victims. She also wants to inspire her daughter, "so she sees you must stand up."

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solkon@tribune.com

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