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Punishing victims

After Tiffani Alvera was beaten by her husband so badly it put her in the hospital and him in jail, she was served with an eviction notice from the manager of her government-subsidized apartment in Oregon. The apartment complex had a zero-tolerance policy for drugs or violence in the units, which meant tenants who were victims of domestic violence were kicked out along with the instigators.

If this could be any crueler, we don't see how.

For the last 10 years, local public housing authorities and landlords of publicly subsidized housing have adopted highly punitive zero-tolerance policies, which mandate the eviction of entire families if a single member of the household is arrested for a drug-related or violent offense. Typically, the stories involve teenagers arrested for drugs, causing their mothers and grandmothers to be put out of their homes. But now private and publicly subsidized housing developments in Oregon, Michigan, California, Louisiana, Colorado and Massachusetts have figured out a way to make the rules even harsher, by applying them to battered spouses.

Victims of domestic assault will tell you that a beating turns their world upside down. Assault victims often face long convalescence, criminal prosecution of the batterer, enforcement of a restraining order and efforts to keep life as stable as possible for their children.

Now, for some, add homelessness.

When Alvera was served an eviction notice, her options were extremely limited. She was already living in government-subsidized housing, but the beating left her face badly bruised for months, making her miss days of work. That meant she had even fewer resources to look for alternative housing. She was able to avoid being evicted only with the help of a public-interest lawyer.

The justification for the no-excuses eviction policy given by the management of the Creekside Village Apartments in Oregon, where Alvera leased one of the 40 units, was that the rules protected the living environment for other tenants. And while it is understandable that Creekside Village would want to remove a batterer or any other violent person from its premises, it makes no sense to punish the victim as well.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Creekside Village is engaging in sex discrimination and therefore violating fair housing laws. The department has sued the management of the apartment complex alleging that, because women are disproportionately victims of domestic violence, a policy that evicts such victims discriminates against women. Alvera has also joined the litigation in her own right with the help of a series of public-interest legal organizations.

Whether this zero-tolerance policy is truly sex discrimination is open to debate. Men as well as women are victims of domestic abuse. In fact, arrests of women for domestic violence are increasing. But this unyielding policy can be attacked another way _ by making clear in all public housing and subsidized housing regulations and their enforcement arms, that the days of mindless zero tolerance are over. Innocent members of a family should not be punished due to another's misdeeds, and any government regulations that allow for this draconian result should be repealed or clarified.

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