Thursday, February 12, 2009

Rep. Kessler champions protections for sexually harassed tenants

Rep. Lynn Kessler paid her first visit of the session to the House Judiciary Committee today to testify on her bill, HB 1856. The measure would increase safety for victims of sexual assault and harassment by their landlords by allowing them to change the locks on their dwelling unit or break a lease without penalty.

“This kind of legislation does saves lives,” said Rep. Kessler. “If you were the victim of sexual assault or harassment by your landlord, and that landlord had a key to your place and could enter at any time - how could you ever sleep? How could you live any kind of a normal life within those walls? I just don’t think you could.”

The Northwest Women’s Law Center supports the bill because, according to staff attorney David Ward, there is currently a “gap in the law” when it comes to sexual assault victims who are in landlord/tenant relationships with the perpetrators. Although current law allows these victims to break their leases, they lose any rent they already paid for the month they move out, and have no protection against financial penalties for breaking the lease. There is also the special problem of having no right to change the locks.

“The tenant is in a different situation because the perpetrator has a key to the residence,” Mr. Ward testified.

One woman who testified before the committee said her landlord had offered to waive late fees on her rent if she would agree to “go out” with him. When she rebuffed his advances, he demanded an immediate payment of $9000. He also would enter her apartment without giving the required 24 hours notice.

Landlord organizations raised some concerns about the bill in the hearing, but as prime sponsor Rep. Kessler is willing to work with them to move the bill out of the committee by next week’s cutoff.

“Nobody wants to hurt landlords,” Rep. Kessler said as she concluded her remarks. “We just want to protect people who are caught up in this situation.”