ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In California, it's about to get easier for survivors of domestic abuse to break their leases. A new law allows domestic violence victims give their landlords a simple form as proof that they've been abused. Counselors say it'll make abuse survivors safer because they'll more easily be able to move away more easily.
From member station KUSP in Santa Cruz, J.D. Hillard reports.
J.D. HILLARD, BYLINE: It took four years for Virginia to leave the man who abused her. We're not using her full name because she's afraid he still might stalk her. He went to prison for the abuse and Virginia, aiming to get her life back on track, found an apartment with affordable rent where she thought he wouldn't find her.
VIRGINIA: I was safe. I was in a confidential location.
HILLARD: But then her abuser got out of prison, and a neighbor reported someone who looked like him had broken into her car. Virginia locked her door.
VIRGINIA: And I looked out my blinds and I remember seeing him. And I hadn't seen him for two and a half years, and I don't know how he found me.
HILLARD: She decided to move out quickly but there were two months left on her lease.
VIRGINIA: I had to pay for a couple months, and that was an extreme hardship on me, but I didn't want my credit ruined.
HILLARD: Virginia and fellow advocates for abuse victims asked Democratic State Senator Mark Leno for help. The result is a new law making it easier for survivors of abuse to move quickly and without financial hardship. Leno says in the past, you needed to get a court order or a police report to break a lease.
STATE SENATOR MARK LENO: You can now talk to a medical professional or a health care provider or a counselor who deals with domestic violence, sexual assault or human trafficking, and they can write a statement, which will be legally respected under law and by the landlord, so that you can break your lease and move on.
KARLO NG: In the process of trying to escape the violence, a lot of survivors don't have the resources or the time necessarily to get a police order or a protective order from the court.
HILLARD: Karlo Ng of the National Housing Law Project says most states have no allowance for breaking leases in abusive circumstances. And most that do require police or court documentation, which aren't confidential and expose victims to retaliation. Lowering the bar for documentation will also make it easier for immigrants who suffer abuse. Ng says most people whose native language is not English don't trust the police. And in court and other legal filings, language can be a barrier.
NG: There isn't enough sort of translation and interpretation resources available for folks so that access is sort of equal, you know, regardless of whether or not you speak English.
HILLARD: The bill wasn't a sure thing. To get it passed, advocates needed to show support from landlord groups. Mike Nemeth of the California Apartment Association says his organization was initially concerned the bill would make it too easy to scam landlords.
MIKE NEMETH: We just wanted to make sure that qualified people can say, yes, this renter has been abused and needs to be given a safe passage out of this lease.
HILLARD: Once the bill limited who could provide documentation and required a specific form, it passed. Virginia, who we heard from earlier, now works with a group called Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence. She says the new law means more options for other victims.
VIRGINIA: They've already had their power and control taken from them for so long. We don't want to be another force that comes in and does that to them.
HILLARD: Virginia notes that elder abuse and human trafficking also involve violence in the home. And she's glad the new law provides the same protection for people escaping those situations. For NPR News, I'm J.D. Hillard in Santa Cruz.