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Sexual assault survivors in Louisiana now have another tool they can use to escape their abuser: They can break their leases.
Under a law signed this week by Gov. John Bel Edwards, not only do survivors have the right to get out of their rental contracts early, regardless of whether the assault happened on the premises, but landlords can also evict people who’ve been accused of sexual assault.
Passing this legislation has been a three-year-long journey for activists who advocate against sexual assault.
“Many survivors of sexual assault who are renters or who are low-income and are either assaulted in their homes or assaulted and the perpetrator might know where they live—it becomes a huge safety concern or a retriggering experience for them,” said Racheal Hebert, president and CEO of Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response (STAR), a Louisiana-based anti-sexual assault advocacy organization. “Being able to break their lease, without penalty of having to pay out their lease, allows them the freedom to regain safety and also get to a better place, so they can start working on their healing.”
Louisiana already has a law on the books that lets domestic violence survivors break their lease, but it doesn’t apply to sexual assault survivors.
Herbert said that survivors have often asked her organization for help breaking their lease; it’s a particular problem for college students who are living off-campus. And although landlords will sometimes be sympathetic, until now, they had no legal obligation to let survivors get out of their contracts.
Still, the law does require a few steps that could deter people from coming forward. If someone wants to get out of their lease because of a sexual assault, they have to name themselves as a survivor, and provide “reasonable documentation” proving that the assault occurred within the last 60 days. That “reasonable documentation” can consist of testimony from a social worker, professional counselor, a cop, or a prosecutor. That same documentation is needed to evict someone accused of sexual assault.
But the vast majority of survivors never come forward publicly. Out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, just 310 are reported to police, according to statistics from RAINN, the preeminent anti-sexual assault advocacy organization in the U.S.
The survivor also has to agree that they will never “knowingly and voluntarily” let their assailant come back on the property that they’re trying to escape. That can be difficult to enforce, especially if the person who’s sexually assaulted them is their partner or family member. Survivors can also be gaslit into letting their abuser back into their lives.
Herbert acknowledged that this provision was “a compromise on the bill,” since some organizations that aim to protect landlords’ rights feared that people may lie about sexual assault in order to get out a lease early.
Still, she said, the bill is a victory for sexual assault survivors. When Edwards released the list of bills he’s signed this year, he singled out this law for particular praise in a statement.
“This bill is a great step forward in helping sexual assault survivors gain independence and protection under the law,” he said.