COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Thirty-six hours after an Ohio State graduate student’s abusive ex-husband was released from jail in 2022, he duped his way into her apartment complex and destroyed nearly everything in sight.

On top of juggling classes, applying for post-grad employment, and showing up to Franklin County court hearings for her former partner’s ongoing domestic violence-related case, Lauren said she had a new problem on her plate: finding a place to live at an address unknown to her abuser.

“I didn’t feel safe on one hand, but on the other hand, I don’t want to leave my home,” said Lauren, who wanted to keep her surname anonymous. “This is where I’ve lived for the last three-and-a-half years.”

Domestic and sexual violence is inextricably linked to one’s housing, according to a 2020 National Sexual Violence Resource Center report. About 11% of women survivors in the U.S. report being sexually assaulted in their own homes, and another 8% signaled the need for housing services in the wake of intimate partner violence.

But given the few housing protections afforded to victims and survivors in Ohio, being bound to a lease agreement could mean the difference between staying with and leaving an abusive partner, according to attorney Melissa Benson, who leads the Columbus Legal Aid Society’s housing team. 

“Many times survivors of domestic violence struggle to leave their abusers just in general, but there is an extra barrier of, ‘What happens with my lease? Do I still owe this landlord money? Do I have to move? Can I move?’” Benson said. “And then for some people, there’s, ‘If I move, is my partner going to find me?’”

To ease the housing transition for Ohio survivors, state Rep. Michele Grim (D-Toledo) last month introduced House Bill 143, nicknamed the Safe Homes Act, to allow victims of sexual or domestic violence to change their property’s locks or break a rental agreement early – without footing the bill for the remaining months’ rent or receiving retaliatory threats from a landlord.

“This is going to be one less barrier for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault to be able to find a safe place to rest their head,” Grim said.

Few housing protections for Ohio sexual violence survivors

Under the Violence Against Women and Fair Housing acts, victims and survivors living in federally-subsidized housing can prematurely break a lease without punishment, Benson said. The statutes even provide them support with locating a new unit.

But outside of the federally subsidized housing market, Benson said no law exists to prevent an Ohio survivor from being penalized for terminating a lease.

“In Ohio, they absolutely can break their lease, and it’s important for them to be safe and to do that,” she said, “but there is no protection that says their landlord can’t come after them for the remainder of the money that they would owe under the lease.”

At Ohio State University, the nonprofit Student Legal Services and its team of attorneys also assist students with and see the need for housing services after sexual assault or domestic violence, according to managing director Molly Hegarty.

Of the 7,443 undergraduate, graduate and professional Ohio State students who participated in the 2019 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct, nearly 18% reported being sexually assaulted or harassed while at the university.

“Based on our experience with campus landlords, some would oppose allowing a victim to terminate their lease early because it would hurt their bottom line,” Hegarty said in an email. “That said, we have had landlords who have been willing to allow a victim out of a lease early without penalty. But, they are the exception rather than the rule.”

Who qualifies for early lease termination, lock changes?

Under the Safe Homes Act, Grim said qualifying victims and survivors are shielded from paying the remainder of the rent if they do decide to prematurely break a rental agreement.

To be eligible for early termination, a victim or survivor must have a court-ordered protection order or a record of their crime report that’s signed by a “qualified third party,” such as a law enforcement official, health care provider or victim advocate.

In Lauren’s case, she had both, according to NBC4’s review of court and police records. A Franklin County judge issued a no contact order against her ex-husband, and his criminal affidavits with the clerk of court’s office and incident reports with the Columbus Division of Police detail Lauren’s accounts of the abuse.

But because another party – her apartment complex – was implicated in her ex-husband’s break-in, Lauren said she was able to terminate her lease for cause and without punishment under Ohio law. She wouldn’t have been entitled to that, however, had it not been for her apartment complex’s accidental yet negligent move to permit Lauren’s former partner into her home.

“Even then I was taking a risk that they were going to come after me for rent,” she said. “With everything going on at the same time, that was just like one more thing that I really wish I didn’t have to deal with.”

Lauren said she “would love to see something like” the Safe Homes Act in place. Had it been when she terminated her lease, it may have saved her the stress of financial or other backlash.

“It also would have just saved me a lot of the headache and made things a little bit simpler for me to get out,” she said. “I was lucky to have the support and resources to be able to do that, and I know that a lot of people in similar situations don’t.”

How will landlords, property managers be affected?

If a landlord or property manager receives a request for early termination from a qualifying tenant under the Safe Homes Act, they must provide the tenant 30 days to move out and could be subject to a lawsuit if they refuse or retaliate.

Both Grim and former state Rep. Lisa Sobecki, now a Lucas County Commissioner and one of the original authors of HB 134, said the Safe Homes Act provides ample protection to landlords and property managers. Like those who have experienced sexual or domestic violence, Sobecki said landlords “didn’t ask for these things either when they rent out their property.” 

The measure sets aside a $200 nonrefundable tax credit that’s able to be renewed if a landlord or property manager suddenly is left without a rent-paying tenant. 

Sixteen Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors of the Safe Homes Act. It has yet to receive bipartisan support, according to Grim’s office.