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Giving Shelter to All 

Imagine the following scenario: A woman is looking for a new place to live. Her partner has been physically and verbally abusing her for months and knows her current home isn't safe. She's scared how her partner might react to her departure, and embarrassed by the situation she's found herself in—a sadly common scenario when as many as one in four women (and not an insignifcant number of men) reportedly has been victims of physical violence in their lives. As this woman is filling out the standard information on a rental application, she stops when, among a slew of screening questions, she reads one asking whether she ever has been the victim or perpetrator of domestic violence.

Sure, the question whether someone has been an abuser makes sense—a person with a history of assault should raise red flags for a landlord. But why does a property management company need to know if an applicant has been the victim of a crime? Unfortunately, in many states screening for—and discriminating against—victims of domestic violence is permissible, presumably because landlords worry that trouble may follow someone who has been assaulted in the past. But in Oregon, it is illegal to discriminate against a current or prospective tenant based on his or her experience as a victim of domestic or sexual violence, a reasonable and considerate approach, and one that does not further victimize. ORS 90.449 states clearly: "A landlord may not terminate or fail to renew a tenancy, serve a notice to terminate a tenancy, bring or threaten to bring an action for possession, increase rent, decrease services or refuse to enter into a rental agreement...because a tenant or applicant is, or has been, a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking."

This week, as students return and re-nest in the area, we urge local property management companies to remove this question from its screening process. While the Source has not uncovered any proof that any property managers are denying housing based on this question, nor are we implying that such actions are being taken, we do point out that the question, at the very least, is callous. A representative from one rental company told the Source that the question is intended to either help with paperwork—presumably for prospective tenants who are receiving some form of housing assistance based on their status as survivors—or, to provide context for an assault record contained in a background report. The employee said it is not intended to screen applicants, and that a "yes," in the absence of a damning background check, would not hurt an applicant. Regardless of the intent, the question, on its face, serves to alienate an already vulnerable, isolated, and shamed population. It is not hard to read the question as a screener for "trouble." Advocates say that victims of domestic violence are at the greatest risk of being further injured or even murdered when leaving their abusers; trying to break from their aggressor often inflames anger. As such, those moments—when someone is looking for a new place to live—are arguably the time when domestic violence survivors most need support. Moreover, a 2012 report from the Department of Justice found that in Oregon there are nearly six times as many victims of domestic violence than safe housing for them, an especially keen statistic when considering the mere one percent vacancy rate in Central Oregon. Deterring these applicants most in need of shelter is the wrong approach and deserving of the Boot. Drop the question from the application, property managers!

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