Stalking, sex assault victims could break rental leases under bill awaiting governor’s signature

Update: the House and Senate have agreed on a final version of the bill, and it is on its way to the governor Friday morning for signing. As approved by the General Assembly, the law will apply to existing leases as well as renewals and new leases.

Women’s groups, advocates for the homeless and those who support victims of sexual assault or stalking are cheering a near-unanimous vote today on a bipartisan bill that would allow such victims to break apartment leases when they believe their lives are in danger.

The measure, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Dominique Jackson of Aurora, passed the House this morning on a 61 to 3 vote. It now goes to the Senate, where it will be sponsored by Republican Sen. John Cooke of Greeley, a former sheriff.

Current law allows victims of domestic violence to break a rental agreement, but only if that person files a police report. That same protection does not extend to victims of sexual assault or of stalking.

The bill is important for several reasons, according to Neha Mahajan, Colorado state director of 9 to 5, a group that advocates for working women. She pointed out that for some women, filing a police report is not an option. Just the act of calling the police may cause some landlords to begin eviction proceedings, rather than wanting to protect the tenant. The bill allows those who want to break a lease the option of using other evidence, such as medical reports or statements from a medical provider.

“Colorado has some of the worst protections for renters in the country,” she told The Colorado Independent. Those rental laws makes a bad situation worse for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. The passage of Jackson’s bill “represents an important step with providing basic protections.”

The bill says a victim of domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking who wants to get out of a lease because he or she is in imminent danger, can break the lease with “minimal remaining obligations,” although that term isn’t defined in the language of the bill.

The bill drew strong support from advocates for victims’ rights, immigrants’ rights, working women, the homeless and domestic violence survivors.

The strongest opposition came from Rocky Mountain Home Association, a trade group that represents manufacturers of modular and manufactured housing. Even the state trade group for apartments, Colorado Apartment Association, worked with the sponsor on an amendment that clarified the types of documentation that would be required to allow someone to use the law to break a lease.

The three votes against the bill came from Republican Reps. Justin Everett of Littleton, Tim Leonard of Evergreen and Larry Liston of Colorado Springs.

Leonard and Liston did not reply to requests for comment on why they voted no.

Everett told The Independent that the issue for him is not about domestic violence, which he called “heinous,” but about putting more regulations into state law.

He initially described the bill as a “gotcha: if you vote no, you get blown up in the press.” He said that if domestic abuse becomes an issue, the onus should be on the landlords to deal with it. “We don’t need government telling landlords what to do. It interferes with a contract that can be worked out in the private sector,” he said, such as becoming standard language in an apartment leasing contract.

He also said the standard for getting out of the lease is too low.  “It’s ripe for abuse.”

The bill allows as evidence either a police report, filed within the previous 60 days; or in the case of sexual assault, a statement from a medical professional who can attest to the assault.

Allison Rocker, a senior deputy district attorney in Denver, talked about the law’s impact for stalking victims during the committee hearing last week.

Building stalking cases is incredibly difficult, she told the House Judiciary Committee. Victims face months of harassment, violations of restraining orders, as well as contacts that can’t be charged, such as text messages from unknown numbers, or anonymous notes pinned to someone’s door. Stalking is “creatively criminal,” she said, and can go on for a long time before the victim realizes it is criminal behavior.

Prosecutions are far more successful when the victim feels he or she is safe, Rocker said. Victims may fear escalation of behavior if a case is filed, and won’t participate with law enforcement if he or she doesn’t feel safe. Allowing a police report as evidence for getting out of a lease gives much more immediate relief and a feeling of safety to a victim, she said.

Raana Simmons of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault pointed out that victims are trapped in their homes following the assault, sometimes by landlords who refuse to change locks; some landlords are even the perpetrators, she said.

9 to 5’s Mahajan said today that the bill shouldn’t be a partisan issue and hopes it will receive a favorable review in the state Senate.


Photo credit: Neil Moralee, “I Walked Into a Door,” via creative commons license, flickr 

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.