Exit clause for abused renters debated in House committee

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(The Center Square) – Legislation offering an exit clause to renters subjected to domestic abuse is headed to the floor of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, despite concerns that the proposal could cause unintended harm to landlords.

Under the bill, renters can break a lease on a property shared with an abuser after providing written notice to the landlord detailing their experiences and concerns. Police reports, medical notes, arrest records, protection from abuse orders, and documentation from the state’s Victim Advocate Office also suffice as notice.

“Sometimes when you’re meeting with people who are trapped, you wonder, ‘What can we do?’” said Rep. Melissa Shusterman, D-Paoli. “I feel like this bill acknowledges some of the difficulties when it comes to housing, privacy and being threatened.”

Several counties in Pennsylvania already enforce similar protections, including Philadelphia County.

Critics say, however, that the new proposal is “too broad” and victimizes landlords because it allows renters to break contracts without consequence.

“This bill would allow that individual to sign a form and turn it in and get a ‘get out of my lease free’ card at any time by making assurances that they felt threatened, or a note from their physician assistant or some other way,” said Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Waynesboro. “I acknowledge the challenge, but we are victimizing the landlord who is a party to that lease, and we are not allowing the courts to enforce a written contract, which we wouldn’t do in any other circumstance.”

Schemel’s comments drew rebuke from Democrats on the committee, who said abuse victims don’t always experience physical violence, and struggle with sharing their stories because of fear and judgment.

“Abuse comes in so many different forms, but it has the same psychological trauma as if you were to receive a blow,” said Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-Bellevue. “And sometimes it would be easier to have experienced abuse that left marks because it’s easier for people to believe you when you have a black eye or a broken bone.”

The bill cleared the committee on a 14-11 party-line vote and awaits consideration on the chamber floor.

The Pennsylvania Coalition for Domestic Violence said one in three women, one in four men and nearly half of LGBTQ+ individuals experience domestic abuse in their lifetime – and 98% are subjected to financial abuse. In just one day in 2022, the coalition said it served nearly 3,100 victims.

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