Protection from eviction: Survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence, and stalking

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

Nobody deserves abuse by an intimate partner or a family member, but unfortunately many people experience abuse by a loved one or someone they were previously in a relationship with. Many people also experience assault, stalking or harassment by someone they have no relationship with whatsoever. All too often this abuse can lead to housing issues such as eviction or the need to relocate quickly. This article will review eviction protections. Domestic violence: Your right to terminate your lease for safety reasons covers the right to leave your apartment before your tenancy ends.

If you are a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, or facing sexual harassment by the landlord, you have certain legal protections from eviction. If you get any eviction notice, get legal help as soon as possible. 

The rights that you have depend on what type of housing you live in. Check your lease to find out what type of housing you live in. If you do not have a lease, your housing is most likely unsubsidized, private market housing.

In this article, learn what protections you have:


Federally-funded subsidized housing

What if I am a survivor facing eviction and I live in public or subsidized housing?

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) prevents landlords from evicting survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking for reasons directly related to that abuse. 


VAWA does not apply to state-funded public or subsidized housing.

Under VAWA, a landlord cannot evict you for violating your lease because you are a victim of abuse. This protection includes anything that is a direct result of abuse. For example: not paying rent, the abuse disturbing neighbors, and property damage from the abuse.

Under VAWA, a landlord also cannot evict you for criminal activity related to domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking. VAWA also prevents a landlord from evicting you because you or someone else called the police or ambulance to respond to abuse.

VAWA protects a household from eviction even if the victim of abuse is not the named tenant, including occupants and other people who are affiliated with the household but do not live in the home.

What types of abuse qualify for VAWA protection?

VAWA protects anyone—regardless of their gender or sexual orientation—who has experienced domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault or stalking. 

Domestic violence

Domestic violence includes threats to use force or sexual abuse or the attempted use of physical abuse or sexual abuse or a pattern of any other coercive behavior to gain or maintain power and control over a victim. This includes verbal, psychological, economic, or technological abuse. Also includes any felony or misdemeanor crime of violence.

Domestic violence includes only actions taken by a current or former spouse, someone who is or has lived with the victim as an intimate partner, someone who shares a child with the victim, or is a youth or adult, they have victim protection by Massachusetts family and domestic violence law.

Dating violence 

Dating violence includes violence by a person who is in, or has been in, a social relationship of a romantic nature with the victim.


Stalking means that someone targeted the victim with a pattern of behavior that would cause a reasonable person to fear for their safety or the safety of others or to experience substantial emotional distress.

Sexual assault 

Sexual assault is any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by federal, tribal, or state law, including when the victim is underage or is otherwise not able to give consent.  

What information about VAWA does the landlord need to give me?

The landlord or housing authority is required to give you a Notice of Occupancy Rights under VAWA when you sign your lease, when you recertify, and with any eviction notice they serve on you. This notice gives a summary of VAWA rights and protections. 

How do I ask for VAWA protection?

You can ask your landlord, housing authority, or property manager for the protection of VAWA at any time and in any way you are comfortable doing so. It is best to put the request in writing in case you need to show how and when you asked for help sometime in the future, but that is not necessary in order to get the protection.

Can the landlord ask for documentation to prove that you are eligible for VAWA?

Yes. The housing provider can (but is not required) to ask for proof of your experience of abuse and eligibility for VAWA. If the housing provider asks you for proof that you are a victim of abuse, you must submit it within 14 business days. This does not include weekends.

What document do I need to show that I am eligible for VAWA protections?

You can use any one of these documents as proof that you are a victim of abuse:

  • A HUD-approved certification form called a Certification of Domestic Violence, Dating Violence or Stalking [Word document]. A housing authority must give you one if you ask them for it.  
  • A written statement signed by a victim services provider, medical professional, or lawyer saying that the acts in question were acts of domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking against you. You must also sign the statement.
  • A police record that says you were a victim of domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking.
  • A court record that says you were a victim of domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking. For example, a restraining order, an affidavit filed in a court case, or an order from the Probate and Family Court.

You are allowed to choose whatever document is safest and easiest to get. All of these documents are equally valid under VAWA.  

Is information I give to the housing authority or private landlord confidential?

Yes. The housing provider must keep any information you provide about the abuse you have experienced and your request for VAWA protection you confidential.

This information can only be shared in the following situations:

  • If you give permission for the housing authority to share this information.
  • If it is needed in an eviction proceeding (for example, to evict your abuser).
  • If a court orders the housing authority or landlord to disclose the information. 
How do I use the VAWA protection to fight an eviction?

See Eviction Basics to learn about how to protect your rights in an eviction case. Make sure to include in your Answer that the reason for your eviction is related to your experience of abuse. If you have not been able to fill out an Answer, try to explain the connection between the abuse and the reason for your landlord’s eviction to the judge. The judge should take this evidence into consideration when deciding your case and if they do not, it could be a reason to appeal the decision. 

Are there any situations where the landlord can deny my request for VAWA protection and still evict me?

A housing authority or subsidized landlord may be able to evict you if they have “good cause.” For example, if they can prove that other tenants or staff are in actual and imminent (immediate) danger that cannot be addressed by security or other steps, you could be evicted even if you are a victim of domestic abuse. But without proven danger, the housing authority or subsidized landlord cannot evict or penalize you in any way.  

Can I lose my Section 8 voucher if I am facing domestic violence?

No. Your Section 8 voucher cannot be taken away or terminated because of your abuser’s acts, or threats, or criminal activity relating directly to the abuse. If you are facing a voucher termination, you should ask the housing authority for VAWA protection, provide one of the types of proof, and explain to the housing authority why the reason they are giving for termination is a result of abuse.

If you and your abuser share a Section 8 voucher, your abuser can be removed from the voucher through a process under VAWA called "bifurcation." You should see your Section 8 worker to ask about removing the abuser from your lease ("bifurcation"). If you still qualify for the voucher, you will not lose it because you are or were being abused. 

Private market and state-funded housing

Unfortunately, the protections for tenants who live in private market or state-funded housing are more limited than in federally funded housing. If your landlord tries to evict you because of your abuser’s behavior or because of steps you are taking to protect yourself, you may be able to stop the eviction. These protections apply to all genders, sexes, and gender expressions. 

What protections do I have if my landlord tries to evict me because of something by abuser has done?

Private market housing

There is currently no protection against eviction based on the experience of abuse. However, it is illegal to bring an eviction against you because you have called emergency services for help due to abuse, gotten a restraining order against an abuser, or asked for a change of locks at the apartment due to abuse.  

State-funded subsidized housing

If you have shared with the housing provider that you are a survivor of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault or stalking and have taken steps to remove the abuser from your household, the housing provider may not evict you for damage, disturbance, or other lease violations caused by the abuser.  

The exception to this rule is when the housing provider believes that failing to evict you places others at risk of death or serious bodily harm and there are no other actions that could reduce or eliminate the threat.

To document abuse with your housing provider, give them 1 or more of the following: 

  • medical reports, 
  • police reports, 
  • court reports,
  • proof that you have tried to get a restraining order, 
  • proof that you have filed a civil or criminal complaint against the abuser, 
  • a letter from an attorney, 
  • a letter from counselor, 
  • a psychological report, 
  • a letter from social service agency or 
  • a detailed third-party written explanation of the circumstances that led to the present housing situation.

Most other types of housing

Federal and state anti-discrimination laws prevent landlords from discriminating against tenants based on their 

  • sex, 
  • sexual orientation, and 
  • gender identity. 

If you believe that the eviction was filed against you based on your sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity, make sure to fill out an Answer that explains why. A discriminatory eviction is illegal. If the court agrees that your landlord is bringing the case against you because of your sex, sexual orientation, or gender-identity, you will be allowed to stay in your home.  

Domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking impact people regardless of their sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation, but the majority of people who experience this type of abuse are people who identify as women. Survivors who identify as women can challenge evictions or landlord policies that are not on their face discriminatory, but in practice negatively impact female survivors. 

What protections do I have if my landlord is sexually harassing me?

If your landlord tries to evict you and you have faced sexual harassment, you may be able to stop the eviction. It is illegal discrimination for a landlord or their employee to sexually harass you by:  

  • Subjecting you to unwanted physical or verbal sexual harassment,
  • Asking or pressuring you to give sexual favors,  
  • Changing the terms of your tenancy because of your response to the sexual harassment, or  
  • Making you feel unsafe or uncomfortable in your home because of the sexual harassment. 
What steps can I do take to stop an eviction if I am facing domestic violence or sexual harassment?

If you have faced illegal retaliation by your landlord because of domestic violence or sexual harassment and you have been served with a Summary Process Summons and Complaint, a Temporary Restraining Order, or any court papers trying to remove you from your home:

  • File an Answer right away.  
  • In your Answer, check off what defenses apply to your situation.
    • If you are a survivor of domestic violence, go to the Retaliation section in the Answer.
    • If you have faced sexual harassment, go to Sexual Harassment/Discrimination section of the Answer.  
    • Check off all other defenses that you may have.

For more about how to protect yourself, see Eviction Basics.

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Who to call for help with domestic violence
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Call 911 if you are in danger right now.

If you are not in immediate danger, you can contact:

See Jane Doe's list of Massachusetts domestic violence programs and court resources for safety and support.

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