By: Felise Ortiz

In the District of Columbia and other metropolitan areas, gentrification greatly exacerbates domestic violence and limits the access to resources for survivors.[1]  From 2011 to 2015, domestic violence calls in Washington, D.C. rose from 31,000 calls a year to almost 35,000 a year.[2]  In 2015, over one thousand people in D.C. area homeless shelters reported they were homeless as a result of domestic violence.[3]  For example, a twenty-nine year old women spent two years looking for an affordable apartment to get away from a physically abusive boyfriend.[4]  Finding everything too expensive and the housing program waiting lists impossibly long, the woman was left no other option than to endure surviving her boyfriend’s beatings as opposed to moving her three children into a homeless shelter.[5]

When asked the reason for staying in an abusive relationship, one of the most common responses for domestic violence survivors is lack of access to housing.[6]  The scarcity of domestic violence shelters and transitional housing in cities such as Washington, D.C. means domestic violence victims stay with their abusers rather than escape to a homeless shelter or impose on friends and family.[7]  According to the District of Columbia’s Coalition Against Domestic Violence, domestic-violence-related calls to District of Columbia police have increased from about 31,000 a year in 2011 to 34,966 in 2015.[8]  Despite the increase in domestic violence, the District of Columbia government has not increased its funding or support of nonprofits that provide shelter and transitional housing programs, leaving the cities’ most vulnerable residents with little to no options of escaping abusive situations.[9]

While the majority of Washington D.C.’s population is still African-American, there is evidence that the African-American community is being pushed to the outskirts of the city as well as into Maryland and Virginia.[10]  Black women in particular are being pushed further away from the few domestic violence resources still available within city limits.[11]

In the last quarter of the twenty-first century when the Violence Against Women Act was created, domestic violence among minority and marginalized populations was ignored, while white domestic violence issues were emphasized.[12]  For example, during its coverage of the Violence Against Women Act of 1991, a popular television show, 48 Hours, presented the stories of seven white women who experienced domestic violence and only one black woman.[13]  The black woman was nameless and only depicted with a picture of her beaten face, so the audience was not given a chance to relate to her violence in the same way as the white victims.[14]

Consequently, as domestic violence rose to gain national attention and become part of the political agenda, very little thought was given to the specific needs of women of color and the only gains for them were consequences of gains in the white community.[15]  National domestic violence legislation as well as local D.C. housing laws must take into account the specific economic concerns faced by African-American women.[16]  In order to create better resources for domestic violence victims of all backgrounds, the specific concerns of African-American women must also be addressed.[17]  African-American women are among Washington, DC’s most impoverished residents and if there are not shelters easily accessible to them in the District then the current additions of VAWA have failed to meet its goal of improving protection services for all victims.[18]  D.C. Housing policy and the U.S. Housing Authority must combat the effects of gentrification and mandate shelter services within city limits in order to comply with VAWA and DC’s own domestic violence laws.


[1] See Elise Schmelzer, Gentrification eats away at shelter options for domestic-abuse victims, The Washington Post (July 10, 2016), (providing statistics on domestic violence reports in Washington, D.C.).

[2] See id. (referencing the bar graph pictured in article).

[3] Id.

[4] See id. (elaborating on the realities faced by victims who are trying to escape abuse).

[5] See id. (reinforcing the scarcity of domestic violence shelters and transitional housing programs within Washington, D.C.)

[6] See generally Schmelzer, supra note 1.

[7] See id. (describing how lack of affordable housing options leads to domestic violence victims being less likely to escape abusers when there is not access to shelters in the city).

[8] See id. (detailing how domestic violence has increased in relation to the city’s growing population).

[9] See id. (explaining how nonprofits cannot afford to subsidize rising rents or compete with the commercial residential market).

[10] See United States Census Bureau, QuickFacts District of Columbia, (last visited Apr. 27, 2017) (2015 census says 48.3% Black and table shows change in neighborhood demographics in DC).

[11] See Lisa M. Martinson, An Analysis of Racism and Resources for African-American Female Victims of Domestic Violence in Wisconsin, 16 Wis. Women’s L.J. 259, 263 (2001) (explaining for an African-American victim of domestic violence, financial support may be as urgent a need as mandatory arrest laws).

[12] See id. (describing how Black women are a suspect and neglected group within the conversation of domestic violence).

[13] See id. at 267 (explaining how from its inception VAWA focused on protecting white women not women of color).

[14] See id. (emphasizing how dismissal of non-white domestic violence is exemplified in the television program 48 Hours and set the stage for the national domestic violence legislation).  

[15] See id.; see also Melissa Jeltsen, When women must choose between abuse and homelessness, The Huffington Post (January 14, 2016),

[16] See Martinson, supra note 11 at 267 (explaining how African American women often consider a number of additional issues, including the African-American race image as a whole, the position of African-American men, the view of African-American families, their economic situation, and the system’s responsiveness if they do make a call for help).

[17] See id. (asserting that racism in policy making and enforcement against African-American women affects when and how they can utilize resources for domestic violence).

[18] See The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Renewal passes the House and Senate and signed into law, National Network to End Domestic Violence (Oct. 14, 2016), (explaining the goals of the reauthorization of VAWA).

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